Tsipras: The loser who ought to have not bet

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras: A man with not much to smile about.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras: A man with not much to smile about.

“In politics, one plus one does not necessarily equal two,” a political science professor once told a roomful of us back in my university days. “In fact, in politics, if you add up one and one and get two, you’ve probably got the wrong answer.”

Indeed, concealing one’s true intentions has long been a useful skill in politics. “Je vous ai compris,” French prime minister Charles de Gaulle told the ruling white minority in Algeria in June 1958 to allay concerns that he would grant Algeria the independence that would bring the colonists’ privileged way of life to an end. In English, the words meant “I have understood you” or, more aptly, “I get the message.”

This and other duplicity bought time for de Gaulle to accomplish his real goal: France’s withdrawal from Algeria, which de Gaulle even in 1958 privately knew had no hope of continuing on as a French colony, and overseeing the country’s transition to independence. After de Gaulle’s deception of the colonists became known, the bitter joke was that the French leader had been misquoted, having actually told the crowd “Je vous hais, compris?” (“I hate you, understand?”)

If someone of de Gaulle’s intelligence and cunning were Prime Minister of Greece today, that country might not be on the verge of a meltdown of its banking and even medical system, which could trigger emergency humanitarian assistance for what was a few years ago a moderately affluent European country.

What Greece has instead is prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who is no Charles de Gaulle. Frustrated by negotiations in which fellow members of the European Union, primarily Germany, insisted on painful economic and political concessions in return for helping the Greek government avoid national bankruptcy, Tsipras called a snap referendum on the European Union’s terms, which was held this past Sunday.

Tsipras himself campaigned for the “No” side in that referendum, claiming that a rejection of the European Union’s onerous terms would strengthen his position at the bargaining table. And he won, with 61 percent of the vote.

Yet there are now reports that perhaps no one in Greece was more horrified by Sunday’s “No” victory than Tsipras himself. A stunning article written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Athens correspondent for Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper, and published Tuesday notes that the result left the Greek prime minister “depressed” and that “what should have been a celebration on Sunday night turned into a wake.”

Why? According to the article, Tsipras had tried his hand at de Gaulle-style duplicity, campaigning for a “No” vote while privately hoping for a “Yes” vote, and failed miserably. Evans-Pritchard writes:

Greek premier Alexis Tsipras never expected to win Sunday’s referendum on EMU bail-out terms, let alone to preside over a blazing national revolt against foreign control.

He called the snap vote with the expectation – and intention – of losing it. The plan was to put up a good fight, accept honourable defeat, and hand over the keys of the Maximos Mansion, leaving it to others to implement the June 25 “ultimatum” and suffer the opprobrium.

The consequences of Tsipras’s losing bet, according to Evans-Pritchard:

Syriza [Tsipras’s governing party] has been in utter disarray for 36 hours. On Tuesday, the Greek side turned up for a make-or-break summit in Brussels with no plans at all, even though Germany and its allies warned them at the outset that this is their last chance to avert ejection.

[ . . . ]

Events are now spinning out of control. The banks remain shut. The ECB has maintained its liquidity freeze, and through its inaction is asphyxiating the banking system.

Factories are shutting down across the country as stocks of raw materials run out and containers full of vitally-needed imports clog up Greek ports. Companies cannot pay their suppliers because external transfers are blocked. Private scrip currencies are starting to appear as firms retreat to semi-barter outside the banking system.

Greeks cannot be blamed for feeling miserable about their lot in life, with unemployment running at 25 percent and their citizens rating their own average satisfaction with life at the lowest level of any OECD country. Austerity policies, under which the population is obligated to accept a lower standard of living as the price of being assisted by other European governments (who need to be mindful of their own electorates) and of returning to economic competitiveness in the absence of a currency-devaluation option, is now being linked to rising suicide rates and growing public health problems, and has put the country in “an effective debt trap in which the effort to escape through austerity has reinforced the enclave” (see PDF page 8, print page 138).

By calling a referendum, Tsipras gave the Greek people an opportunity to vent their pent-up anger — and they did just that by voting “No” in Sunday’s referendum. If it is indeed correct that Tsipras was betting on a “Yes” vote to get himself out of office at an opportune moment in which he could leave with his reputation intact rather than as the man who took Greece into bankruptcy,  he has botched it up spectacularly.

Recommended reading for those interested in this topic (and who want something more than the tedious, uninformative partisan mudslinging to which the Greece issue has been sometimes reduced in Canada):