Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza came to power in January promising to end austerity and tear up the memorandum of measures imposed by Greece’s creditors. Outside Greece, many on the left celebrated the victory as the start of a new era, projecting all sorts of hopes onto the small, untried left party. Eight months on—after nail-biting negotiations with the eurozone, a resounding “No” vote in a referendum on new bailout terms, closed banks, capital controls, and rumors of impending Grexit followed swiftly by a capitulation to the creditors—Syriza has been re-elected as a pro-memorandum party, with almost as large a share of the vote as it had in January.
What happened? Are the Greeks crazy, fickle, confused, or all of the above?
This strange, suspended summer, the exhaustion in Greece was palpable. People tried to forget what had happened, to take in the heat and the light, to get on with their lives. All that “Hope Is Coming” and “Left for the First Time,” all that cheering and chanting, all those crowds and the “Historic No” of the Greek nation—what did they have to do with everyday reality, with bread and work and family, with what’s important here?
Sick to death of politics and politicians, most Greeks needed another election like a hole in the head. With the new memorandum a done deal, many felt it wouldn’t much matter which party had to enforce it. The campaign was a kind of shadow play, a parody of politics. The party leaders had little to say on pressing issues facing Greece beyond the bailout: the real economy, the refugee crisis, education, civil rights. Tsipras positioned himself as the man who could break with the old corrupt political system. Conservative New Democracy’s Evangelos Meimarakis played the part of a safe pair of hands, lambasting his opponent for bringing the country to the brink of catastrophe. The next few months may be among the most critical Greece has faced, yet it all felt wearily familiar, stale, and worn. On voting day, the abstention rate was the highest in many years. Polling places were empty, quiet—“like a visit to a sick friend where people talk in whispers,” in the words of musician Themis Andreades.
Yet in the end, despite the chaos of the last eight months, despite the humiliation of having hoped too much, despite the betrayal felt by many on the party’s left, enough people voted Syriza to make Tsipras the first Greek leader to keep his job after signing a bailout agreement. The scenario of the “left parenthesis” put about by the right before the last election has been put to rest. So has the politics of the forty-year post-dictatorship period, in which center-left and center-right alternated in power, each favoring its own clients and packing the civil service with its cronies and supporters. Almost everyone can see now where those practices have led. Syriza—which hasn’t yet had a chance to dip deep into that mire, and which may yet escape it—looks like the only alternative.
But this wasn’t only a lesser-evil victory. It has a deeper resonance, which I can best explain to myself in terms of theater. In the last eight months Tsipras has taken his country through a painful confrontation with intractable reality. The July referendum on a bailout deal that was no longer on the table made no rational sense at all; emotionally, though, it was a turning point, the crisis of the crisis. It brought both the “Yes” and “No” camps out onto the street, with so much force that some people worried about civil conflict. The “No” rally was enormous and exuberant: “Like being on another planet,” as a veteran of these things put it, “like nothing we’ve ever seen.”