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Sacrifices in vain?

Cristoph Hasselbach / db
December 29, 2014

A victory by the leftist Syriza alliance in snap elections in January 2015 threatens Greece's hard-earned economic success, DW's Christoph Hasselbach warns.

Akropolis and EU flag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Alexis Tsipras could use the detour of a failed presidential election to achieve what he wasn't able to achieve just a few years ago, namely to become the next Greek prime minister. Opinion polls currently see his leftist Syriza alliance in the lead. Should Tsipras really lead the next government and carry out his plan to give up the consolidation course, things would not be looking good for Greece or, for that matter, the eurozone.

A piece of work

A brief review: two Greek government leaders - Socialist Giorgos Papandreou and the current head of government, conservative Antonis Samaras - struggled mightily to convince their fellow Greeks of the reforms and austerity course the international lenders had prescribed. Even back then, Alexis Tsipras headed the political opposition against that course of action. But without those requirements, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund would never have kept the country from financial collapse with the fabulous sum of 240 billion euros ($ 292 billion).

It's significant that not only German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow conservative, supported Samaras' election campaign in 2012, but France's socialist President Francois Hollande and Italy's neutral Prime Minister Mario Monti did so as well. Hollande and Monti have been known to join forces in opposition to an alleged German austerity order. But where loans for Athens were concerned, it appeared to be clear to both that Greece's remaining in the currency union, possibly even Europe's entire bailout policies, depended on the acceptance of those conditions.

Greece's economic future may once again be at stake.

DW EU expert Christoph Hasselbach
DW EU expert Christoph HasselbachImage: DW/M.Müller

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told the tabloid Bild that any new Greek government must "observe its predecessor's contractual agreements." Should Greece choose a different route, things "would become difficult." Timing would be most ironic if Syriza won in the upcoming elections: finally, after years of recession, the country's economy is bouncing back again and Greece can begin to harvest the fruit from what clearly were the people's great sacrifices. These sacrifices would have been in vain if a Tsipras-led government put an end to the austerity course.

Check out Ireland

On a political level, the creditors would be forced to stop their assistance. How to explain to taxpayers in Germany, the Netherlands and France that the Greek bailout is unconditional, that is, no one demands that Athens tackles the reason for the debt overload?

More than that, the creditors would be hard pressed to explain that scenario to recipients like Ireland and Portugal: they, too, had to make similar, painful cuts. Incidentally, Ireland is the best example for how things can go steeply uphill again following a successful consolidation. The country once faced insolvency, but managed to exit the eurozone bailout program a year ago; today, Ireland records maximum growth rates. Why, the Irish would wonder, did they have to endure austerity, while Greece was getting off cheaply?

Irreconcilable goals

Tsipras wants it all: to keep Greece in the eurozone without making cuts.

But you can't have both. At this point, of course, it's only opinion polls that indicate a Syriza victory. The mood may change by the time election day rolls around on January 25.

Even Tsipras has toned down his usual radical plans to unilaterally cancel the austerity resolutions. At present, he at least plans to negotiate with the creditors. His official program - raising incomes and pensions, ending layoffs and stopping privatization - is part and parcel of the requirements demanded by and guaranteed to the creditors.

Consider also that the terms for the repayment of the bailout loans were considerably improved under Samaras. As prime minister, there aren't many more concessions Tsipras can expect from the creditors.

Well-advised reforms

Perhaps many Greeks have come to the conclusion that some the forced reforms are actually good for the country, but that their own politicians never had the courage to tackle them: streamlining the inflated but inefficient state apparatus, improving the completely inadequate levy of taxes. Taxation is an issue that shows that not every change is necessarily tied to social hardship - to the contrary, reforms can even bring about more social justice. Greece can never go back to the way it was before the crisis, anyway.

One can only hope that the Greeks won't jeopardize what they have painstakingly achieved by backing political dreams.