The Rhetorical Flair of Greece's Prime Minister

How Alexis Tsipras got the same proposal rejected by voters, then accepted by legislators, in a matter of weeks.

Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Less than two weeks ago, as Greek voters were preparing to participate in a referendum on whether to accept the conditions of a third bailout from Europe, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivered a speech. In it, he urged Greeks to reject "ultimatums, blackmails, and the campaign of fear" he said European creditors were waging and vote against a measure that would call for Greece to reform its pensions system and raise its taxes. Voters seemed to listen, and voted overwhelmingly against it. A day later, Syntagma Square, the central square of Athens, was a veritable carnival in tribute to Tspiras and his anti-austerity Syriza party.

On Thursday, ahead of a different vote on a quite similar plan, Tsipras gave another speech, this time to Greece’s parliament.“I was blackmailed, there were no good options and I chose the least bad. The MPs should recognize this and accept the same choice,” Tsipras said. “The government does not believe in these measures. We will do our best to protect people from measures we do not believe in but are forced to implement.”

With the exception of parts of of Tsipras’s own party, Greece’s parliament seemed to listen and voted overwhelmingly in favor. The night before the session, Syntagma Square was afire from Molotov cocktails and clouded by tear gas fired by riot police to keep violent protestors at bay.

Meanwhile, Tsipras has managed the rhetorical feat of convincing voters to reject a plan, and convincing legislators to embrace a similar one, mainly by saying the same thing: Europe is being unfair and we will fight. Only the definition of “fight” has really changed.

The prime minister’s rhetorical chops were also on display in his victory speech after his party won elections in January, when he dispatched a little Greek mythology to dismiss those who predicted doom for Greece under the leadership of his left-wing, anti-austerity party.

Friends, the new Greek government will prove all the Cassandras of the world wrong. [There will be] no mutually destructive clash. … We have a great opportunity for a new beginning.

As the writer Shiv Malik noted at The Guardian, the problem with the speech was that “Cassandra was ALWAYS right.” While Greece seems set to remain in the euro zone for the time being, the last few months have often seemed to veer toward a “mutually destructive clash.”

It would be difficult enough being prime minister of Greece if the country’s problem was only that half or more of Greeks under the age of 25 are out of work. Or that long-term unemployment has hit 20 percent. Or that its per capita GDP has plummeted.

GDP Per Capita Since 2005

But the banks have now been closed for two and a half weeks. Workers across a number of industries are striking. And Tsipras may face new elections if his ruling coalition falls, which after last night, it may.

The good news is that after Thursday’s vote, the European Central Bank promised to raise the ceiling on emergency lending to Greek banks to $989 million, meaning that the banks may open again soon and that Greece probably won’t crash out of the euro zone for now. But that may be about it for the good news.