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Stronger, wiser, milder? What to expect from Tsipras II

Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP | Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras on the eve of his resounding election victory

Alexis Tsipras's left-wing Syriza party returned to power with an unexpectedly decisive election victory on Sunday, giving the 41-year-old leader a second chance to steer the country out of the abyss.

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The astonishing result marked Tsipras’s third electoral triumph in nine months, once again confounding sceptics and dismissing forecasts of a close race. It highlighted the resilience of a party that had largely lost its veneer of youth and hope, battered by the intransigence of Greece's creditors, humbled by its humiliating climbdown on austerity, and ripped apart by internal divisions.

That Tsipras should have survived these rollercoaster nine months is a measure of his strategic acumen – and of his opponents’ lack of credibility. “Voters really felt the urge to have a clear break with the past and give this young leader another chance,” said FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Athens, Nathalie Savaricas. “There were simply no serious alternatives.”

Reactions from Greece’s EU partners appeared to reflect the realisation that, whether they like it or not, Syriza’s leader remains the dominant force in Greek politics. They also suggested Greece’s radical left no longer has the power to scare the rest of the continent. As polls opened on Sunday morning, a senior editor at German daily Die Welt bluntly tweeted: “Good Morning from Berlin. Snap elections started in #Greece but nobody really cares as Greeks have no real choice.”

When exit polls gave Syriza a wider-than-expected lead over its rivals, French President François Hollande rushed to congratulate Tsipras on his resounding victory. "Greece will have a period of stability with a solid majority," Hollande prophesied. There were also warm words from EU Parliament chief Martin Schulz, who welcomed Syriza among Europe’s “social democratic family” – a mere three months after he called for Tsipras’s replacement by a “technocratic government”.

A new Syriza

EU leaders have good reason to believe Tsipras will not engage in the same kind of brinkmanship that left his country on the verge of bankruptcy back in July. Pummelled into submission by his EU partners, the Greek leader has already signed up for an 86-billion-euro bailout – the third in five years – and has vowed to implement the painful reforms demanded in return for desperately needed bailout cash. Tsipras now speaks of softening the blow of austerity, not cancelling it, and promises to sweeten the bitter bailout pill – not junk it.

“A different Syriza has won – one that has accepted the bailout and has lost its left-wing platform,” said Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor at the University of Reading, referring to the July departure of the party's hard-left faction in protest at the bailout deal. Syriza dissidents formed their own party, Popular Unity, but fell short of the 3% threshold to enter parliament on Sunday. With them out of the picture, Tsipras is now in command of a much more coherent political force.

Is Greek humbling killing European dream?

Vassilis Monastiriotis, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, said Tsipras had "taken a big risk" by quitting the prime minister's job last month to trigger a snap election. "But the gamble paid off and he is now in a much stronger position," he said. "Victory will enable him to stabilise Syriza and turn it into a party of government, and to establish himself as a prime minister for years to come.”

Still radical?

But even with a more cohesive party, Tsipras still faces the daunting task of implementing a deal he has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe in – as have many of the world’s top economists, including Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Tsipras has agreed to politically toxic measures including tax rises, changes to pensions and social welfare cuts – all of which are likely to depress Greece’s battered economy further. He will have to persuade EU leaders that Greece has taken enough steps to ensure the next payment when the bailout programme is up for review next month. As if that were not enough, Tsipras will also have to deal with a worsening refugee crisis, which has overwhelmed Greece’s eastern islands and fuelled the far-right Golden Dawn.

With his hands tied on the economy, Tsipras has promised to be radical in other fields, including reforming the judiciary, tackling vested interests and cleaning up a corrupt and inefficient civil service. The Syriza leader made similar pledges in January and has so far struggled to deliver. Should he fail again, his party is likely to lose what is left of its “radical” aura. “The vast majority of Syriza voters still believe its identity hasn’t been lost – they still see it as radical, which is why they are willing to give it another chance,” said Monastiriotis.

'Greek voters wanted to give their young leader another chance'

In his first decision after Sunday's victory, Tsipras confirmed his determination to continue to shun the country's establishment parties by announcing that he would resume his awkward coalition with the right-wing, nationalist Independent Greeks, and thereby ignore EU pleas to find a more palatable partner. The alliance gives him a slender majority of five seats in the 300-seat parliament.

Delivering on debt

The good news for Tsipras is that voter expectations are likely to be lower than in January, when Syriza won an impossible mandate to challenge Greece’s creditors and bring an end to austerity while also staying in the eurozone. After Tsipras’s humbling in July, Greek voters have realised no such thing is possible. Almost half the electorate shunned the polls on Sunday – a record level of abstention for Greece and a worrying signal for Europe. With their government effectively under EU guardianship, it is easy to see why many Greeks didn’t bother voting.

But Tsipras will have to deliver on at least one economic issue: debt relief – without which Greece's economy has no chance of bouncing back. In this battle, his worst foe could prove to be his best ally. Three months ago, Tsipras fought strenuously to keep the IMF out of the new bailout deal, mindful of its past role in demanding and enforcing sweeping budget cuts. But the organisation headed by Christine Lagarde is also the only creditor that has – somewhat belatedly – recognised the need to slash Greece’s debt, arguing that the country’s economy cannot bear the full burden of the austerity programme without a substantial form of relief.

“A lot of people don’t think this austerity deal alone will do Greece any good – including the IMF, which says Greece needs a lot more debt relief than its EU partners are willing to grant,” said FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor, Douglas Herbert. The IMF has refused to take part in the bailout unless there is an “explicit and concrete” agreement to delay repayments or slash the debt. If Lagarde becomes Tsipras’s best ally, it would not be the first irony in this seemingly never-ending saga.

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