Greece concluded a dramatic no-confidence vote on Wednesday evening after two days of debate, acting as something of a referendum on Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. If he had failed to achieve the majority 151 seats needed, Tsipras had said he may hold snap elections.
However, Tsipras survived with a razor-thin victory of exactly 151 seats, coming on the heels of two days of bitter debating in Parliament.
In a speech to Parliament delivered earlier in the day, Tsipras appealed for support so that the government could work for “the country’s liberation from foreign coercion, economic frailty and the dominance of the corrupt elite.” After his victory, he said “the Greek Parliament gave a vote of confidence in stability” and that his government would complete its term “with the sole concern of addressing the needs and interests of the Greek people.”
However, one of his political rivals, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the conservative New Democracy party, accused Tsipras of forcing austerity measures on Greece – a slam against Tsipras as he had been elected to office on the platform of being against austerity. He claimed elections were “the only solution for the country to go forward,” in response to Tsipras’ stance that the government would remain in power until October, when the 4 year term concludes.
The confidence vote was called for when Tsipras’ hold on Parliament fell apart, after the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) left the ruling coalition, putting an end to their alliance with Tsipras’ own left-wing Syriza party. The head of ANEL, Panos Kammenos, was Minister of Defence – until he suddenly resigned this past weekend over the Prespes agreement between Greece and FYROM, over the latter’s name change.
The disagreement concerns FYROM’s name change to “Republic of North Macedonia,” as it still includes the word “Macedonia.” This has been very controversial, as a part of the Greek population argues it implies irredentist claims to a Greek territory of the same name. “The issue of Macedonia, an issue for which thousands died, does not allow me not to sacrifice the minister’s chair,” Kammenos announced. After accepting his resignation, Tsipras proceeded to call for a vote of confidence in his government. He managed to secure 151 votes in favour in the 300-seat Parliament. 145 parliamentary sets are held by his Syriza party, while 6 additional votes were secured from defectors of Kammenos’ ANEL party and independents.
Addressing Parliament, Tsipras said “There are times that one is judged not for his words but for his acts. There are times of critical decisions and of responsibilities.” He continued, “Addressing you all, I urge you to speak clearly and with honesty, listen to your conscience and respect the people’s interest. I call on you to give a clear response: Do you trust this government to continue?”
This political upset came less than two days after FYROM’s prime minister Zoran Zaev succeeded in getting parliament to support the name change. The Prespes Agreement requires for Greece to ratify the accord. Once that has been completed, Greece is likely to drop its veto on its neighbour joining the EU and NATO.
The Prespes Agreement is part of Tsipras’ bid to boost the country’s geopolitical influence in the wider region on the one hand, and regain political capital on the other. Tsipras also reminded Parliament on Tuesday that he oversaw Greece exiting its third bailout program last August, putting an end to nearly a decade of financial help and ushering in budgetary surpluses. However, many Greek citizens still feel squeezed, and levels of unemployment, at circa 18 per cent– albeit steadily decreasing – are still the highest in the Eurozone.
Tsipras’ economic savvy during his tenure matters. During the Greek sovereign debt crisis, the economy shrank by over 25% and unemployment reached nearly 30%, causing Greece to seek international aid in 2010. Though Tsipras was first elected to office in 2015 on an anti-austerity platform, he oversaw a third international bailout to prevent Greece from declaring bankruptcy, which the country then exited mid-2018. Since then, Tsipras has navigated a fine line between maintaining the surplus and catering to the anti-austerity measures and other reforms popular among his electorate.
Under Tsipras’ tenure, the Greek economy has been steadily recovering, showing consistent growth over the last seven quarters. The IMF predicts a healthy growth of 2.4% for 2019. Greece has also been tackling public finances, which were at the heart of the debt crisis, and since 2016, has produced primary fiscal surpluses. The account deficit shrunk from 15.2% of GDP in 2007 to 0.8% of GDP by the end of 2017. This stunning turn-around, in turn, prompted a return to the international markets. In February 2018, Greece released 7-year bonds to test the private sector’s interest in Greek assets, which was met with high demand. Since then, the Greek government’s focus has turned to attracting foreign investment, while continuing to tackle structural challenges within the economy.
However, even with the return to economic normality, many investors remain cautious. Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management, said on Monday via email that “Greece is more firmly established as a member of the euro and is running a primary fiscal surplus. However, investors may choose to look at the extent of support for unconventional or extreme political groups and extrapolate that into European trends.”
Tsipras winning this vote, by however thin a margin, is a good sign for the country’s stability. But Greece still faces a lot of difficulties. The global economy is no longer doing as well as it was only a few years ago, and maintaining growth might become difficult. Between trade disputes, fallout from Brexit, and changing US monetary policy, Greece will have to adapt quickly. And while Greece has made strides in addressing their high rates of non-performing loans, their high ratio – currently the highest in Europe – remains a drag on Greece’s financial sector, something that will only get more difficult to address if the economy remains rocky.