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Seen from the capital cities of Greece’s eurozone partners, there is one obvious way for Alexis Tsipras, the leftwing prime minister, to prevent the disaster of a debt default and exit from Europe’s 19-nation monetary union.
It boils down to the happy thought that, with Greece running out of cash to pay salaries and pensions, he should bow to realities and govern as a rightwinger or, at least, as much less of a leftist.
He should negotiate in good faith with Greece’s creditors, waste no more time on bombastic anti-capitalist gestures, make credible promises of economic reform and budgetary discipline and, last but not least, implement these promises.
If necessary, so this argument continues, Mr Tsipras should break with ultra-leftists in his ruling Syriza party who are opposed to such concessions, and who account for a good 20 per cent of the party’s parliamentary representation. Instead, he should govern in a sort of pro-EU national unity front with the moderate parties he defeated in January’s election.
A historical model is Britain’s 1931 National Government, a coalition formed in a financial crisis under the tamed Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, with leftwingers banished to the sidelines.
Seen from Athens, the notion that Mr Tsipras will execute a MacDonald-like somersault, or “kolotoumba” as Greeks call it, seems debatable. Consider Syriza’s record since the party came to power two-and-a-half months ago.
Two laws, passed in March, stand out. One addresses what Syriza calls Greece’s “humanitarian crisis”, and aims to provide emergency help for the poorest citizens, including free electricity and food stamps for 300,000 people.
The second, dubbed the “restart of the economy” law, permits Greeks behind on tax payments to settle debts in up to 100 instalments. If they pay up more quickly, they will benefit from a partial write-off. This is no small matter. Overdue taxes in Greece amounted by February to €75.7bn, of which €56.4bn was owed by individual taxpayers.
Meanwhile, parliament — under its speaker, the smouldering Zoi Konstantopoulou of Syriza — has set up three investigative committees guaranteed to annoy Greece’s allies and creditors.
One is compiling Greek second world war reparations claims against Germany. Another is looking into the circumstances in which previous Greek governments received bailouts totalling €245bn in 2010 and 2012.
A third committee is assessing if some of Greece’s loans should be classified as “illegitimate”, “illegal” or even “odious debt” — that is to say, debt that Greece has no obligation to repay because it was not amassed with the people’s consent, was not used for their benefit and can only be honoured by violating their fundamental rights.
This third panel is known as the Debt Truth Committee. A video on the legislature’s website explains everything, summarising the committee’s mission with John Lennon’s song “Gimme Some Truth” playing in the background.
In other words, Syriza, though inexperienced in power, is fighting hard to implement as much as possible of the leftwing platform on which it was elected.
Nonetheless, Mr Tsipras has displayed a certain pragmatism, even cold political realism, as prime minister. He arranged that Greece’s new head of state should be Prokopis Pavlopoulos from New Democracy, the centre-right opposition party on which he had heaped scorn for years.
He has made overtures to a New Democracy faction led by Kostas Karamanlis, the premier whose 2004-09 government was partly responsible for the debt debacle Mr Tsipras inherited.
The Syriza leader, a devoutly unreligious soul, has made public appearances with Archbishop Ieronymos II, Greece’s Orthodox Church primate. He is careful, too, not to upset Greece’s military leadership.
Mr Tsipras seems, then, a flexible politician who, if he chose, could perform a “kolotoumba” and dump the Syriza diehards. A different interpretation is that he is preparing the ground, in the event of a default, for an appeal to all patriotic forces to back him.
In only a matter of days, we will find out the truth.
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