Don’t Bet on Syriza

by Mark Mazower – July 1, 2015

The New York Times

NEW YORK — The human costs of five years of austerity have been catastrophic for Greece but the decision to hold a referendum on Sunday will only make matters worse.

The one unambiguous benefit, for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, has been to unite his party, Syriza, which had been growing increasingly restive as the negotiations went on. Overnight, he has cemented his political base and strengthened his hand internally. Syriza is back in the position it likes best: standing for opposition to the global status quo.

But what has this done for the country as a whole? That the Constitution seems to exclude referendums on fiscal matters is perhaps a legal nicety but it highlights the government’s rather cavalier attitude toward existing political institutions. It talks about the people’s will but shows a worrying disregard for the democratic bodies and procedures it says it is protecting.

Mr. Tsipras has asked Greeks to vote on an already expired bailout package and has made clear his desire to see a “no” vote prevail. The only logical inference, although he denies this, is that he is willing to see Greece abandon the euro. He denies it because he knows this would be unpopular and a huge gamble.

He believes a “no” vote would let him return to negotiate in Brussels from a position of strength. This reveals a stubbornness to face facts that amounts to a kind of magical thinking.

Greece is not the only country with voters, and each of Mr. Tsipras’s fellow European prime ministers already has their own democratic mandate. Will they defy the will of their voters and cave in to save the euro? Almost certainly not to Mr. Tsipras, given the trust that he has frittered away over the past five months. Whatever he may say, the likely outcome of a “no” vote is thus an eventual return to the drachma.

If the electorate votes “yes,” more political uncertainty and new elections would be the likely outcome. At least abstention implicitly recognizes the futility of the whole exercise.

What Mr. Tsipras has fundamentally disregarded is Greece’s extreme weakness. On the one hand, it is weak like any small country, with limited capacity to affect the rules of international life. But it has the additional weakness of a poorly functioning economy and a crushing debt.

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