A year after Greece’s cliff-hanger elections, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has displaced Alexis Tsipras, who heads the country’s radical-left Syriza party, as the man to watch. Last year, it was Mr. Tsipras who stunned observers after Syriza came a close second to Mr. Samaras’s center-right New Democracy party in the June parliamentary contest.
Now it is Mr. Samaras who has the initiative, charting a course whose cumulative successes have tempered political passions while strengthening Greece’s longer-term prospects. Gone are the occupations, the massive protest rallies and the violent, anarchist-led disruptions. When Parliament voted last month on a sweeping bill to implement the next stage of the bailout program, protest calls by the public-sector unions, the Communist Party and the anarchists met with only a tepid public response.
This in a country with a daunting 27% unemployment rate. Effectively, the Greek public has given Mr. Samaras a grudging vote of confidence to proceed with the rescue program.
Given the dire conditions prevailing in Greece one year ago, this is a extraordinary turnaround. With the country’s economy in collapse and the credibility of its political establishment in tatters, the fresh-faced Mr. Tsipras seemed well-placed to take power whenever the next elections were called. Mr. Samaras overcame a rocky start as prime minister to forge an unlikely coalition with the once-powerful Pasok and the small Democratic Left party.
The new government faced a Herculean challenge: convincing the country’s increasingly skeptical European and International Monetary Fund lenders that Greece could meet their strict requirements for continuing the bailout program that has kept the country out of bankruptcy over the past three years. At the December 2012 EU summit, Mr. Samaras pulled it off, earning kudos from the country’s partners, securing vital funding and frustrating Syriza, which had staked its hopes on his government’s failure.
Syriza’s momentum stalled after that. Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr. Tsipras began a charm offensive in Europe and the U.S., giving speeches at places like Washington’s Brookings Institution. His putative “turn to realism” was designed to assure Western elites that, while opposed to the austerity-driven bailout program, he was interested in negotiating with the country’s lenders, not confronting them, and was fully committed to keeping Greece in the euro zone.
On the domestic front, Mr. Tsipras moved toward transforming Syriza from a small protest party into a potential governing force, tackling the same issue that Andreas Papandreou—the prime minister who dominated Greek politics in the 1980s and ’90s—faced in 1977, when a surge in Pasok support made it the official opposition. The party purges required to transform Pasok into a credible governing party led to Papandreou’s sweeping 1981 electoral victory.
But Mr. Tsipras’s prospects of taking charge of his party and advancing a credible alternative for exiting the crisis are shaky. Within Syriza, he is not the commanding figure that Papandreou was for Pasok. And to most Greek voters, Mr. Tsipras’s position that you can reject the bailout agreement and remain in the euro seems fanciful at best.
The eruption of the Cypriot crisis in March further complicated the situation for Mr. Tsipras, strengthening exactly those elements within Syriza’s leadership that he was hoping to marginalize. When the Cypriot Parliament rejected the initial bailout plan, with its haircuts on deposits in Cypriot banks, Syriza militants celebrated the island’s defiance as a historic event that would demonstrate the benefits of standing up to the EU and IMF.
But when the Cypriot Parliament subsequently accepted an equally onerous rescue deal, Cyprus ceased to provide Syriza with a model Greece should emulate. Even worse for Mr. Tsipras, his attempts to coordinate strategy with Cyprus’s left-wing AKEL party, the previous ruling party, went awry when AKEL adopted the position that Cyprus should exit the euro.
To be sure, Germany’s crude handling of Cyprus deepened public disenchantment in Greece and elsewhere in the European South with Chancellor Merkel’s myopic vision for Europe. Yet the result in Greece was not to boost Syriza’s standing in the polls, as one might expect, but rather to freeze it in place. In the only recent poll that gives Syriza even a marginal advantage over New Democracy, only half of respondents declared any party preference at all. In the same poll, just 9% of respondents said Mr. Tsipras was best-qualified to be prime minister.
Meanwhile, Mr. Samaras has made serious gains in restoring confidence in the economy via his low-key but effective governance. Whether or not Europe is able to find a path beyond its nagging “growth vs. austerity” conundrum, Greece is making real progress with reforms in the bloated public sector, the privatization of state-owned assets and a reduction in state expenditures. Transcending his history as a narrow nationalist, Mr. Samaras has shown unanticipated dexterity and determination in navigating the country through dire straits.