This is not the golden age of Greece. After winning a parliamentary election in January by vowing to fight the draconian austerity imposed on his country by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, followed by his successful efforts to defeat a national referendum that included dramatic fiscal compromise, austerity and economic discipline, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was forced last week to accept another harsh bailout and persuade his country’s parliament to back the plan.
It was a case of ideology being trumped by reality. In response to economic crises in southern Europe, the EU has chosen not to stimulate the failing economy out of recession. Instead, in exchange for infusions of cash, Europe, led by powerhouse Germany, has demanded austerity — cutting budgets and raising taxes. In Greece, the result has been widespread poverty. It is this reality that Tsipras and his Syriza party vowed to fight.
By some accounts, the inexperienced politicians of Syriza were outmaneuvered in negotiations by the veteran technocrats in the EU and IMF. They hadn’t counted on the utter implacability of Germany or that smaller countries in the EU would support the status quo rather than a bailout deal that would prop up the Greek economy in order to keep the country in the Eurozone.
In the end, Tsipras got a worse deal than he would have otherwise. The prime minister, who vowed to end Greece’s national humiliation, has left his country in a less advantageous position than the day he was elected. All of which provides a case study in how not to govern: Political leaders are playing with fire when they whip up popular support with visceral, nationalistic pleas that lack substance, as Tsipras did two weeks ago in the run up to the Greek electorate’s rejection of the previous round of austerity measures proposed in a national referendum.
Tragically, the Greeks overwhelmingly did as they were told by their leader and voted down an offered bailout package, which then pushed their country — and their leader — further to the edge of the abyss. The voters’ intended display of nationalistic strength had the opposite effect, magnifying their country’s economic weakness and triggering the harshest austerity measures to date.
Tsipras played with fire and burned not only himself, but the citizens of his country as well. Politicians around the world who have been watching the developments in Greece would do well to remember that those who appeal to the masses with slogans and no substance do so at their peril.