ATHENS— Whether Greeks decide in Sunday’s referendum to accept their lenders’ bailout deal or reject it, the government’s hold on power may be shakier than its brash prime minister has calculated, analysts say.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is banking on fellow Greeks to deliver a resounding “no” in the popular vote that he believes will give him strong leverage in his negotiations with creditors to swing a softer bailout deal for a country ravaged by years of harsh austerity, deep recession and crushing poverty.
A win for the No campaign, the reasoning goes, could also furnish Tsipras with an endorsement for his five-month rule and allow his government to consolidate — and extend — its grip on power.
That may not be the case, analysts say, since a “no” vote could still plunge Tsipras’ position into uncertainty if negotiations drag on with lenders who see such the outcome as a Greek snub of the euro. Without a quick deal, banks could stay shuttered to keep their reserves from running dry.
“A deteriorating import-dependent economy will provoke a rapid decline in public support for the government and fresh elections may become inevitable, but this will take time,” said Dimitri Sotiropoulos, political science professor at the University of Athens.
A win for the Yes campaign could cast Tsipras’ public mandate in doubt and force him to broaden his coalition government, political analyst George Sefertzis said. The new government may have Tsipras’ radical left Syriza party at its core, but the cabinet’s composition could change to include “respected personalities who can be recruited to fill that role.”
Syriza emerged from the political fringes in January as Greek voters sought an alternative to what they saw as a bankrupt political establishment they blame for opening the door to half a decade of punishing salary and pension rollbacks, steep job cuts and hefty taxes.
Just a few years ago, the country’s two main political forces, the right-wing New Democracy and the socialist PASOK parties, commanded some 80 percent of the vote between them. Now, with many Greeks seeing them as kowtowing to the lenders’ diktats, their support was dwindled.
Tsipras’ youth, unorthodox style and pledges to fight the good fight for the country’s poorest endeared him to many and persuaded some that he could take on the institutional behemoths that decide the economic fate of entire nations.
But months of talks without real results have eroded the Syriza-led government’s credibility in the eyes of Europe’s power circles.
“This government doesn’t trust the institutions of the EU and the IMF, and those institutions trust the Greek government even less,” said Sotiropoulos.
Tsipras’s gambit appears to rest on whether he can clinch a deal quickly so that banks can reopen and get money flowing to businesses again. Tsipras told private TV station Antenna Thursday that he sees a deal with creditors emerging “within 48 hours” after the referendum.
His finance minister, Yianis Varoufakis, told Ireland’s RTE radio Friday that an agreement with creditors “is more or less done” and that European officials had put forward “very decent proposals” this week.
But Greece’s creditors — the European Union and the International Monetary Fund — are unlikely to cave in on demands for tough austerity measures, said Sotiropoulos.
The creditors may offer a vague pledge to consider restructuring Greece’s crushing debt, but that probably won’t happen until the government faithfully implements the terms of the deal for at least 12 to 18 months, said Sotiropoulos.
“A ‘no’ win would be a Pyrrhic victory for the Greek government. You can’t survive on Pyrrhic victories because you need funds to keep the country running,” he said.
Sefertzis said Tsipras’ political decline may come much faster even with a referendum “no” in his pocket as he would have little time to get to keep the country from economic collapse.
With an economy in tatters, Tsipras’ hold on power would be a “matter of days rather than weeks,” said Sefertzis.
The latest opinion polls put the No and Yes camps in a dead heat as divisions have emerged even within the Greek government. A lawmaker from its right-wing junior coalition partner was kicked out for backing a “yes” vote.
Writing in the liberal daily “Ta Nea,” pollster Elias Nikolakopoulos said any predictions about the outcome on Sunday “are exceedingly precarious” because party allegiances in this vote are fluid.
Speaking on Ireland’s RTE radio, Varoufakis even suggested that a “yes” win is possible, albeit by a narrow margin. But even then, he insisted his party would come out “stronger and united.”
“Syriza will remain the only credible party in the parliament, our young leader will remain the only credible leader of this nation,” Varoufakis said.
There may be credence to that. Sotiropoulos said in case of a “yes” win, Syriza could remain part of any new national unity government given its large support.
He said it would make sense for Greece’s creditors to compensate the country if a “yes” vote prevails by easing austerity, earmarking more developments funds and finding ways to alleviate the debt burden without necessarily resorting to write-offs.
MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS, Associated Press