Thu, Jul 11, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Europe tamed a populist
and now he has paid the price

Former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ transformation from enfant terrible to reliable partner earned him plaudits abroad, but at home, many see him as a traitor

By Eleni Chrepa and Paul Tugwell  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

Michalis Asikis and his brother are not your typical shoe store owners, at least by most standards. One uses time away from the shop to teach at a music school, while the other heads off to taxi tourists.

However, in Greece, scratching a living from multiple sources is not unusual nowadays. The struggle to make ends meet or to keep businesses on life support has become the norm for many Greeks, despite the promise by former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras that “hope is coming” when he surged to power in 2015.

Indeed, to avoid shuttering his store in the northern town of Florina, Asikis has resorted to borrowing from family.

“People believed in Tsipras’ central slogan and not only didn’t hope come, there was also great disappointment,” 47-year-old Asikis said at his outlet on Florina’s main commercial street, which is littered with empty stores. “It’s like telling a kid that you will get them an ice cream and ending up giving them nothing, not even chewing gum.”

Such disillusionment was the harsh reality for Tsipras as he headed into elections on Sunday. While he managed to restore faith in Greece internationally, he lost it at home as his fresh face came to represent more of the same to a jaded nation.

Official results released by the Greek Ministry of the Interior and Administrative Reconstruction showed that Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party won 39.8 percent of the vote, giving him 158 seats in the 300-member Hellenic Parliament, a comfortable governing majority. Tsipras’ Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) garnered 31.5 percent.

Mitsotakis was sworn in on Monday.

To EU leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Tsipras is the tamed populist who took the country to the brink and then ultimately saw sense and assumed responsibility.

He agitated to abandon Greece’s bailout and then made a deal with creditors before guiding the country back into investors’ good books.

He courted Russia, only to act against Moscow’s interests in the Balkans by ending a decades-old name dispute over what is now called North Macedonia, an aspirant EU and NATO member that Russian President Vladimir Putin would prefer to keep in his orbit.

However, to many Greeks, Tsipras is a sellout, as they endured a financial crisis that started in 2010. He caved to the demands of creditors for more spending cuts and tax increases, failed to cope with an influx of refugees and sparked protests over the Macedonia deal.

Meanwhile, the economy went back into recession just when it was about to start growing again and has failed to meet growth targets since.

“It’s more a matter of him being forced to learn certain realities,” said Kevin Featherstone, professor of contemporary Greek studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “The old promises were no longer credible, he’s had to move on. The ‘black sheep’ turned ‘white.’”

Florina, in the western part of Greece’s Macedonia region, encapsulates the meteoric rise of Tsipras and now the decline. At the country’s northern border, surrounded by mountains, the town of about 18,000 people is known for its heavy winters, brown bears and red peppers. Locals rely on the state and ailing Public Power Corp SA, Greece’s largest electricity provider, for their livelihoods.

The unemployment rate of almost 30 percent is among the highest in Greece and Public Power is struggling. Auditors in April questioned the company’s ability to continue operations after it lost more than 500 million euros (US$560.9 million) last year.

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