As Greece’s preelection campaign mercifully enters its final week, all signs point to a cliffhanger. The third wave of polls which came out between Friday and Saturday have Syriza ahead, but its advantage over the centre-right New Democracy is well within the margin of error. Alexis Tsipras, who less than three months ago, as he led Greeks to a resounding no to further austerity in July’s ill-starred referendum, seemed absolutely dominant, is now fighting for his political life.
This is partly down to the dimming of Tsipras’s personal appeal. Having campaigned brilliantly in January and July, he seems flat-footed this time around, unable to stick to a consistent message that resonates with voters, often awkward and defensive. In a way, this is easy to understand. In all his previous campaigns, Tsipras was the voice of idealistic opposition, flashing his winning smile and promising all things to all people, while savaging the heartlessness and corruption of the old governing elite.
This time around, he is the incumbent, who has to defend a poor record, comprised not only of economic disaster but also of a policy U-turn in which he violated almost his entire January manifesto. It is clear that the new role does not suit him.
His unease is mirrored in (what’s left of) his party. Former ministers and other key members of Syriza, following their chairman’s lead, never miss an opportunity to express their dislike of what they have signed up to with Greece’s third bailout. There are vague pledges of a parallel programme to leaven the consequences of yet another round of austerity.
Tsipras was catapulted into power on the back of a deep but seductive falsehood: he told Greeks he could keep the country in the euro while getting rid of austerity. The nerve-racking months leading up to the July referendum proved – since proof was apparently needed – that this was not possible; that Greece’s membership of the common currency, at least while it remains blacklisted by the bond markets, hinges on implementing a tough programme of fiscal retrenchment and structural reform. Now the former prime minister is selling to Greek voters a new version of the idea that they can have their cake and eat it. He is promising that he can both implement the bailout programme and somehow transcend it.
The strategy does not seem to be working. The Syriza faithful, stunned by the government capitulation to Greece’s creditors on July 13, remain skeptical, as indicated in poll numbers and mass desertions of activists from the party. Meanwhile, centre-left voters, who are keen for a more progressive twist to economic policy but who believe that recovery must come through smooth implementation of the programme, leading to debt relief, will hardly be convinced by a man who keeps on repeating how much he hates what he has agreed to. They are further put off Tsipras’s declared preference for another coalition with the hard-right Independent Greeks over the parties of the centre and centre left (Potami and Pasok).
Criticised as a traitor to the cause by the hard(er) left, ie by the Communist party and by Popular Unity, the new party formed by Syriza dissident and former Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, Tsipras needs to make inroads into centre-left territory to win. His U-turn, along with the continued scepticism of voters towards New Democracy, will likely be just enough to give him first place on Sunday. But he is certainly an unconvincing social democrat. And that has consequences: the way he has legitimised continued criticism of the bailout within his party means he may face more parliamentary troubles in case of a Syriza victory, when a dizzying array of politically unpopular measures will have to be passed in a very short space of time.