Japan's Thatcher: Meet the man determined to end the "lost decades"

Shinzo Abe’s first, brief premiership ended in disaster. Yet now, recovered from debilitating illness, the conservative nationalist is back in power and, emboldened by “Abenomics”, is determined to revitalise Japan after many years of decline.

Had it not been for Asacol, a drug to treat ulcerative colitis, the name Shinzo Abe would probably be barely recognisable outside Japan today. True, Abe briefly served as prime minister once before, when he spent 12 embarrassing months in office in 2006 and 2007 plotting a constitutional revision that few wanted and fending off accusations that his government had lost the nation’s pension records. That stint ended in disarray. Under him, the Liberal Democratic Party was trounced in the upper-house elections of July 2007, a defeat that eventually led, in 2009, to its ejection from power after an almost uninterrupted half-century running Japan.

He quit in September 2007, not long after that electoral drubbing. At the press conference, sweating and grey-faced, he looked like a broken man. As if his political miscalculations hadn’t been bad enough, aides whispered darkly about the bowel disease that had drained him of energy. Few expected to hear from him again.

Yet in December last year, Abe (pronounced “Ah-bay”) was re-elected to the premiership. This time, he comes armed with “Abenomics”, a three-pronged policy aimed at reviving the economy after 20 years of drift. He has a socially conservative agenda, a hawkish streak and a mandate that should allow him to remain in office until at least 2016. That is a long time by the standards of recent Japan, where prime ministers come and go with the fleetingness – though rarely the beauty – of cherry blossom. In the past 30 years, only Yasuhiro Nakasone (prime minister from 1982-87) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) have lasted as long or left anything approaching an impression.

“This is an important moment for Japan,” says Hiroaki Fujii, a former ambassador to the UK who is now chairman of the Mori Arts Centre in Tokyo. “There is no national election for three years, no strong opposition parties and no strong personalities who can compete with Abe inside the Liberal Democratic Party.”

The approval a few years ago by Japanese regulators of Asacol, an innovative medicine that has helped control Abe’s bowel condition, was a prerequisite for his comeback. It was, at any rate, important enough for him to mention it in a speech at the Guildhall in London in June as an example of the ponderous and protective regulations that he said were holding Japan back. “If this drug . . . had taken more time to appear on the market in Japan, it’s quite possible that I would not be where I am today,” he told a possibly bemused audience, some of whom may not have been au fait with his medical history.

On its own, the restoration of Abe’s health was not enough to bring him back. The reasons for his unlikely second coming are twofold. First, there is the increasingly dangerous territorial dispute between Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, and China, its second-largest, over uninhabited islands – rocks, really – in the East China Sea. That fight, which many ordinary Japanese consider an early sign of China’s growing, muscular ambition, has made Abe’s brand of nationalism more palatable to an electorate that still maintains pacifist leanings.

The second, perhaps even more important, reason for Abe’s return is his economic plan. He has begun to enact a bold (some say wilfully irresponsible) programme to reflate an economy that has been eroded by steady deflation for 15 years and one dealt further blows by the global financial crisis and the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

The plan, which centres on forcing the central bank to hit a 2 per cent inflation target, holds out at least a possibility of reviving an economy caught in a deflationary trap since the mid-1990s. If it works – and that is a very big if – Japan could plausibly emerge from the sense of inexorable decline and pending crisis that has hung over it through two “lost decades”.

Who is Shinzo Abe? Any quest for his “inner soul” should begin – like his autobiography, Towards a Beautiful Country – on his grandfather’s knee. Abe’s maternal grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a leading official in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Kishi was a member of the wartime cabinet, and after defeat in 1945 he was at risk of being convicted as a class-A war criminal. In 1948 he was released without charge. He was de-purged in 1952 as part of the US “reverse course”, when Washington decided that Japanese right-wingers were less dangerous than the communists in China and the Korean Peninsula. Kishi went on to become prime minister, the head of a postwar establishment that has always been more conservative than the broader Japanese public.

Abe’s great-uncle Eisaku Sato was also prime minister and his father, Shintaro Abe, a long-serving foreign minister, might well have become prime minister, too, had he not died of heart failure in 1991.

Since his early years, Abe’s privileged position and political heritage have marked him out for the premiership. Of all his influences, the deepest is Kishi. “His grandfather may be the central factor in this psychodrama,” says Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor-inchief of the left-leaning Asahi newspaper, referring to what he considers Abe’s obsession with Japanese honour and interpretations of the country’s history. “He had immense respect for his grandfather and from childhood he felt that his grandfather was unfairly demonised in the liberal press.”

Abe is the most conservative Japanese prime minister of his generation. He is close to the revisionist right, which still seethes at the country’s postwar “humiliation” and what it regards as the victors’ justice that has branded Japan and Japanese imperialism as evil. “There is a grudge and resentment about the San Francisco Peace Treaty,” says Funabashi, referring to the 1951 agreement that brought to a formal close issues relating to Japanese reparations and territorial settlement. “This is part of his ambivalence towards the US and it remains at the core of a hidden tension.”

Abe wants to change a pacifist constitution that, strictly interpreted, forbids Japan from maintaining a standing army or navy and strips it of its “sovereign right” to wage war. He is also nostalgic for the Japan of the pre-war era, when the emperor was the divine head of state – not the reduced symbol he is today – and when schools taught children to take pride in their nation. From Abe’s perspective, the teaching of Japanese history by the left-leaning teachers’ unions, far from downplaying Japan’s wartime responsibility, indulges the country’s sense of shame as a defeated and “renegade” nation.

That is certainly not how it is viewed by China and South Korea, which point to the publication of Japanese school textbooks that minimise – or ignore entirely – events such as the Nanjing Massacre or the Japanese imperial army’s industrial use of “sex slaves” during the war. In Beijing and Seoul, many regard Abe as a figure who represents a dangerous lurch back to the military expansionism of the past. “This is not only about Article 9,” says Kiichi Fujiwara, a professor of international politics at Tokyo University, referring to the pacifist clause in the constitution.

“This is about the humiliation of defeat and the acceptance of having your constitution written by the Americans. People like Abe have a victim mentality. They think: ‘These guys keep on telling lies about Japan and we look bad because of those lies.”

There is another force shaping Abe’s strong regard for the “national interest” – a term he uses frequently but one that is fairly unusual in postwar, pacifist Japan. His political heartland is Yamaguchi Prefecture, to the west of the country, which was called Choshu during the Edo period (1603 to 1868), when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. Choshu was one of four regions that rebelled against the shogunate, a feudal government, setting Japan on one of the most remarkable modernisation processes in history. A rallying cry of the Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) was fukoku kyohei, a phrase borrowed from an ancient Chinese idea meaning “rich nation, strong army”. The premise was that only if Japan built a flourishing economy would it have the wherewithal to defend itself from foreign powers.

Abe’s recent conversion to the idea that bold measures are needed to reverse Japan’s genteel decline should be seen in this light. No longer the biggest economy in Asia, it has watched uncomfortably as its influence has waned. As China’s military budget has enjoyed double-digit percentage increases, Japan’s has been stuck at 1 per cent of a dwindling nominal gross domestic product.

That sense of drift became more acute after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, which wrecked Japan’s export markets. Then in 2011 the tsunami washed over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, forcing the shutdown of almost all nuclear capacity. That added to growing concern that Japanese manufacturers might ditch the country altogether for faster-growing foreign markets. Its mighty trade surplus, long the single engine of the sputtering economy, turned negative because of the need to ramp up imports of oil and gas.

In several speeches since his return to power last year, Abe has explicitly linked the issue of economic revival with Japan’s national interest. In a bravura speech entitled “Japan Is Back”, given in Washington this February, he said: “Japan must stay strong, strong first in its economy and strong also in its national defence.” In his Guildhall speech, he merged the two ideas: “I consider it both my role and my fate to restore and enrich the power of the nation of Japan.”

Abe’s economic plan comes in three parts, the so-called three arrows that also reflect his Choshu roots. Motonari Mori, a 16th-century daimyo (feudal lord), is said to have told his three sons that they had to work together: one arrow could be easily snapped but three, bound together, could not. Abe’s “three arrows” are fiscal flexibility, massive monetary stimulus and structural reform aimed at raising the economy’s potential growth rate. He took office with a big spending package but the boldest element of his policy was the pledge to do whatever was necessary to rid Japan of the deflation that had been damaging the economy for a decade and a half.

Abe appointed a governor of the central bank who said, in effect, that he would print money until inflation hit 2 per cent. The mere announcement – in stark contrast to the utterances of previous central bank governors, who had given the impression that they were powerless to act – has sent share prices up by nearly two-thirds and weakened the currency by a fifth. By this August, inflation had stirred and was running at 0.8 per cent, though that was mainly the consequence of higher energy import costs, owing to the weaker yen.

Still, other parts of the economy have flickered into life. People have started spending more, exports are up and Japan is growing at roughly 4 per cent – making it, improbably, the fastest-growing Group of Seven economy. Business confidence is at a six-year high. The sick man of Asia has, for the moment at least, turned fleet of foot. When I saw Abe in Tokyo in October, he looked dapper and full of confidence. “The economic results speak for themselves,” he boasted.

The big question is: can it last? Critics say Abenomics is a mirage, a money printing exercise that is bound to end in currency debasement, capital flight and possible default. Noriko Hama of Doshisha University in Kyoto calls it “asset-bubble economics”. One fear is that, if the policy works, bond yields could rise, making it harder – if not impossible – for the government to service its gargantuan debt. Even those who don’t foresee disaster worry that rising prices (assuming they can be sustained) won’t be accompanied by rising wages. One of the benefits of deflation is that it has kept living standards afloat. Wages may have been pinned to 1990 levels but the prices for some goods are back where they were in the 1980s.

“Abe is able to claim success in relation to the initial steps of Abenomics. There has been some success so far,” says a former senior official. “The substance, however, will have to come from the real economy, from the creation of new industries, the expansion of export industries and the consumer sector, which will come from rising wages.”

Abe has emphasised his “third arrow”: the structural reforms that will supposedly raise the economy’s growth potential. In speeches, he has talked loftily about supply-side reforms. In London he invoked the name of Margaret Thatcher, viewed by Japanese economic liberals as an example of someone who unleashed the potential of a previously moribund economy. Abe has presented a blizzard of ideas: deregulation zones; higher participation of women in the workforce; labour flexibility; a more open immigration policy. “What is necessary for Japan’s revival is a powerful catalyst that will restyle the old Japan and make the ‘new’ Japan even stronger,” he told his Guildhall audience.

To the many doubters, Abe is merely regurgitating ideas that have been doing the rounds for a decade or more. Some, in any case, doubt the efficacy of supply-side reforms or worry that his policies could lead to a harsher, Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism in a country that has held on to the myth – if not quite the reality – of egalitarianism.

Those who think, conversely, that a Thatcherite shake-up is exactly what Japan needs doubt whether he will pull through. Nor do many expect him to transform immigration policy or to alter societal views about women in the workforce. He has raised consumption tax, from 5 to 8 per cent, as a first step in repairing the giant fiscal hole, though some worry that the economy is still too fragile to take such a shock.

Abe has put much faith in Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wouldbe “high-level” trade agreement linking 12 countries of the Pacific, including the United States. The idea is to bring external pressure – the Japanese call it gaiatsu – to bear on protected industries, particularly farming and the medical profession. By opening itself up more, Abe argues, the country will learn how to compete better.

The central plank of Abenomics remains reflation. In October, the prime minister laid out to me the best-case scenario. “Company profits are going up. Naturally, with a tax cut, they’ll go up even more. If that influences wages, then consumption should rise, expanding economic growth further. With that, corporate profits can rise and we’ll have entered a virtuous circle.”

That is the best of all outcomes in the best of all possible worlds. Pessimists still predict that Abenomics will hit a wall. If, however, Abe can bring even modest, sustainable improvement to an economy that has gone sideways for years, he will go down as one of the most effective Japanese prime ministers in decades.

That is assuming that his nationalist impulses don’t lead to some kind of diplomatic bust-up with the country’s neighbours, particularly China. In the interests of pragmatism, he has refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which to Beijing and Seoul is a loathsome symbol of militarism that contains the “souls” not only of two million ordinary soldiers but also those of 14 class-A war criminals. Yet he has made it clear that he would like to visit and that, as Japanese prime minister, he has every right to pay respects to Japan’s war dead; however, so far he has not done so, though several of his cabinet ministers have made the pilgrimage.

Abe has also backed away from an idea to amend two apologies for Japan’s wartime behaviour. Lacking a two-thirds majority in the upper house, he has suspended any immediate plans to push for amending the constitution. In any case, a revision would need to be ratified in a public referendum, something that would be very hard to achieve, particularly if it involved meddling with the pacifist terms of Article 9.

Those who worry that Abe represents a sinister nationalism perhaps underestimate the influence of the Japanese public. Though often criticised for being passive, most Japanese hold on firmly to pacifist convictions, born of terrible memories of the wartime defeat. Ryu Murakami, a well-known novelist, told me emphatically, “Abe may want to change the constitution but the Japanese people are not that stupid.”

Still, the prime minister has marginally increased Japan’s defence spending and approved a law to form a national security council. When pushed, he has quibbled with definitions of Japan as a wartime “invader”. To many Chinese and South Koreans, that makes him an unreconstructed revisionist whose rhetoric carries worrying echoes of the nation’s military past.

For the moment, however, all of Abe’s energies are being channelled into getting Japan’s economy moving again. These days, the country’s nationalism is not concentrated, as it once was, on the cult of the emperor. By prioritising the revival of its economy, Shinzo Abe has reconnected Japan with the cult of GDP instead.

David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times. He was the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief from 2002-2008. His book “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival” will be published by Allen Lane (£20) in January next year

Follow those arrows: Shinzo Abe wants to boost Japan by keeping the economy revving and increasing its international standing.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Getty
Show Hide image

A view from Athens: anger, cynicism and indecision over Alexis Tsipras' snap elections

What are the Greeks in Athens saying about their prime minister's resignation and upcoming snap elections, and who do they believe will win?

Still recovering from the shock of Alexis Tsipras’s unexpected move to call snap elections, which will take place on 20 September, people here are beginning to talk.

Popy, an elderly widow who lives on my street in Rafina, a port town twenty kilometers ourside of Athens, says she is a realist. “Syriza doesn’t exist any more, there is only Tsipras.” She describes Greece’s handsome young prime minister as a “gambler”.

“Does anyone know who he truly is and what he believes?” she asks. “Sure he’s charismatic, but what’s he offering?”

The first “party” in the polls at the moment are undecided voters, at 26 per cent. People are dazed, confused, and angry. A taxi driver tells a friend whose car had broken down that Tsipras’ referendum “divided entire families”; he wasn’t on speaking terms with his own brother, who voted Yes. The man says the only hope left on the horizon was pro-Grexit, pro-drachma Popular Unity (Laiki Enótita), led by Panagiotis Lafazanis, who was Minister of Energy in Tsipras’s cabinet before he resigned.

Many in Athens roll their eyes skyward when Syriza is described as Europe’s “first time left-wing” government. Dimosthenis, a street vendor, tells me: “This is a world first – a party of the left that doesn’t apply its own programme, but instead adopts the programme of the opponent!”

At the local market, two old women are disagreeing about the elections. I overhear one say it is better to have a “progressive government” implement onerous terms it hates than to leave it to the local “servants” of the Troika. Her friend says she thinks the real servants are Syriza.

Orestis, who runs a mini-market in Athens’ sprawling neighborhood of Peristeri, is equally sarcastic about the prime minister’s stated intentions: “First he voted for the measures, then he’ll implement them – or try to – and after that, he’ll fight them.”

And my friend Myrto, a chemistry teacher at a private school in the affluent northern suburb of Kifisia, says: “A socialist, presumably people-friendly, party that implements anti-popular policy – this hasn’t been invented yet!”

The most scathing remark comes from Manolis, a pensioner buying rice and concentrated milk ahead of me in a supermarket: “Tsipras is calling new elections because after the murder he needs to manage the country’s funeral," he laments. "We Greeks have never had a shortage of gravediggers,” he adds.

Few believe Tsipras when he says he gradually wants to undo the reality that brought the weight of the crisis onto wage-earners and pensioners. “Nice left-wing government we have,” says a taxi driver waiting at a stand. “It’s imposing a retroactive pension cut, it does away with benefits for people on low salaries, it increases taxes, signs plans for temporary work, and, via the World Bank, is opening the doors wide to foreign investments in a country with salaries of 300 Euros a month.”

A highly cynical, though telling, remark comes from an elderly woman buying rice at an outdoor market in the town of Marathon: “When Tsipras says he couldn’t have done differently, he’s telling us that he can do even worse in the future.  No way am I voting Syriza.”

The internet abounds with ironic remarks about Tsipras’ government. One blogger writes:

First time left – and Syriza is selling the country for a penny to foreign sharks. First time left – and the rich and powerful continue to tax evade scot-free. First time left – evictions and house auctions continue. First time left – the dream of free medical care remains distant. First time left – and cameras are installed at all toll booths. First time left – and the government condones a plan to fill Greece with one-armed bandits, usually installed in close proximity to schools. First time left – and Alexis Tsipras is present at the inauguration of the new Suez Canal, and shakes hands with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fatah el-Sisi!

In the metro, I meet Danae, a young member of Antarsya (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow).  All fire and brimstone, she tells me this crisis is about a worldwide fall in the rate of profit. The privatisations and deregulation are giving the green light to large multinationals to enter areas they never had access to. She says the Troika and the local oligarchs will now try to turn Greece into a special economic zone – “a hell for most of us, but a paradise in the Mediterranean for big business”.

Signed during the hot mid-August “people’s baths” – when the entire country shuts down for a week – the memorandum “fast-tracks” Greece’s dismantlement. The latest bailout, as Nick Dearden notes, “has nothing to do with debt, but [is] an experiment in capitalism so extreme that no other EU state would even dare try it”.

The country has been saddled with €86bn (US $94bn) more debt. Sakis, a teacher of high school mathematics whose child has Down's syndrome, compares the new agreement to a “gravestone”. He worries that, for the next 30 years, “we will just be collateral” to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

“Bravo, Alexi!” says Iro, a mother of three who cleans houses and makes some money as a freelance hairdresser. “We had the local soundrels and now Alexis has imported the world-class ones.” Alekos, an attendant at a petrol station, tells me he thinks it is “no coincidence” people like Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem and ESM head Klaus Regling are supporting Tsipras’ decision to call premature elections. “They want to make sure the memorandum is implemented,” he says with a smirk on his face.

Alexandra, a single mother who works as a clerk at DEI, the country’s power supplier, tells me that if Tsipras, Nikos Pappas, Alekos Flambouraris, and the other decision-makers in the government, had gone after the corrupt bureaucrats, contractors, doctors, businessmen, and shipowners, “things would be different”.  This view is shared by blogger Giannis Lazarou. He writes that instead of going after the “parasites” in the public sector – people who opened “windows and doors” to corrupt contractors who milked the country for decades – Tsipras is letting Schäuble and Juncker clean up the “manure” of the Greek system. 

A man queuing in line in the post office to pay his power bill, says it best: “Tsipras didn’t stand up to the foreigners because he knew this meant he would have to confront the local scoundrels.”

Kostas, a plumber from Northern Epirus, says the “lesson of realism” has been learned well by both Podemos and Syriza. He calls Syriza’s socialism “pink” and says it is about as radical as Spanish Christian democracy 30 years ago. Alekos, a souvlaki wrapper in Exarxia, an Athens neighborhood with a tradition of urban resistance, tells me he is angry with Syriza for not going to the people. “There are two sources of power in this world,” he smiles wryly, “a lot of money, and a lot of people.  Syriza surrendered to the former because it didn’t have the guts to rely on the latter.”

People are in an increasingly angry and defiant frame of mind. Andreas, who owns a small locksmith shop in downtown Athens (one of the few professions that hasn’t suffered in the crisis), says “nothing is over”. He expects “the experiment to blow up in their faces”.

While pessimistic about the chances of escaping the dark fate the “institutions” want for the country, some readily point out the chinks in the opponent’s armour. Menelaos, a waiter at a seafood restaurant in Piraeus, talks of the “Achilles heel” of European and local bankers, who will now attempt to “rape Greece”.

“Bankers don’t really care about economic growth because they can make money in good or bad times,” he says.  “What they truly fear is a bank run.”  He explains that since most European banks are vastly undercapitalised, with even German banks holding less than five per cent in liquid cash for their outstanding loans, the idea of a bank run “puts the fear of God into them”.

In a similar vein, Maria, a kindergarten teacher who supported Lafazanis’s Left Platform and now backs his Popular Unity party, tells me: “Only the fear of chaos – of revolt and revolution – will get the Dijsselbloems, Merkels and Schäubless to end austerity. We should threaten them.

A similar spirit is echoed from the other end of the political spectrum by the leader of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Nikolaos Michaloliakos says Greece ought to, “use the threat of atakti xreokopia [disorderly bankruptcy] against them”. 

It worries the anti-austerity establishment who vote New Democracy, Pasok, and River, that the climate here is so polarised. Especially troublesome is the fact that the anti-austerity camp includes both the far left and the far right. Usually, fascists and communists disagree. Here they form an “anti-austerity twin of neocommunists and extreme right-wingers,” as Stamos Zoulas writes in Kathimerini (The Daily).

To many, Lafazanis’ Popular Unity appears as the only credible opposition party left. Created in zero time, it must immediately participate in elections. Theodoros, who teaches music at an odeo, or conservatory, voted for Syriza but says he will now vote for Lafazanis’s group. “Despite everything, the people in Popular Unity have remained faithful to the No vote,” he says. “Their ministers resigned from the Syriza government, and, together with their deputies, they now risk not being reelected.”

He tells me: “Popular Unity will protect its credibility like the apple of its eyes: what it promises, it will do.”

Drachma supporters who will now vote for Lafazanis’ party insist the national coin is only “a tool for the country’s development – not an end in itself”, as 23-year old Kimonas puts it. A graduate student at Athens Polytechnic, he says the shibboleth “euro or drachma” was a false dilemma because it “sounds like ‘euro or chaos’ when it isn’t explained properly”.

He adds that he doesn’t believe Syriza ever really had a Plan B. “That was a rap the panic-mongering, pro-austerity media want to hang on Syriza, especially former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.”     

On a more theoretical level, Irini, a 12th-grader who waits tables at a seafood restaurant in Loutsa, tells me she does not accept the “Varoufakism”, as she formulates it, of equating the eurozone with “Hotel California”. “It’s not Grexit and a return to the drachma that’s the real issue,” she stresses. “Hotel California isn’t just a currency but a place of lazy, apathetic submission to the Troika! We can and must leave it!”

Blogger Nikos Dimou writes that Popular Unity is, “a fresh version of the KKE [Communist Party of Greece] with retro promises of a Soviet-style, state-run paradise outside the EU and the euro”.

Naturally, comparisons of the country’s exit to a biblical catastrophy are rejected by supporters of Popular Unity. They point to the experience of other countries and say the period of greatest difficulty will last a few months, after which the economy will begin to grow again. 

The far left does not know whether to ignore Lafazanis’s new party, or vote for Popular Unity as a tactical step that will push things further to the left and radicalize a large section of society, particularly the youth. “With persistence and self-confidence,” writes Blogger T, “Popular Unity might cause an earthquake in the coming elections.”

“People are stupid,” says a textile worker from Piraeus. “This game has to play itself out”.

He continues: “In the absence of a real socialist party, we must at least vote for the one that says the most radical things. Only this way is it possible to keep the ball rolling in the right direction.”

Similarly, Blogger Antonis will support Popular Unity as “the only way” to guarantee a “new cycle of struggles” – struggles based on what he calls the “legacy of the 62 per cent No vote”. He is optimistic: “There’s no need to commit hara-kiri. Grassroots movements will unite in a large front to support popular needs. Syriza was never the hope, after all. We are the hope. And we can’t allow it to be lost forever”.

Yet many people I’ve spoken with remain sceptical of Lafazanis’ party. Giorgos expresses a common attitude: “Popular Unity that comes out of a split! Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Sophia, who works as a ticket inspector on buses, tells me she thinks the Left Platform mildly criticised the Tsipras government but did little to block it. Others are more cynical, like Giorgos, a 50-year-old worker in a bread factory, who thinks it was “convenient” for Tsipras to have a “left platform” in order to attract voters who weren’t quite sure Syriza was a bona fide left-wing party.

So Lafazanis’ pro-Grexit party doesn’t convince everyone. 

Olga, who used to work as a journalist but is now unemployed, says: “Few realise Popular Unity isn’t calling for an anti-capitalist solution to Greece’s problems. In the eyes of the rich, of course, they are flaming commies, but that’s just not true.”

She adds that even the radicals in Antarsya aren’t calling for the “expropriation of the expropriators”, and that Lafazanis’ party will channel growing opposition to austerity into a political dead-end.

“Popular Unity came from the flesh and blood of Syriza,” says a man waiting for a bus on Marathon Avenue. “Syriza doesn’t really have a social base, and neither does Popular Unity.”

On that same bus to Athens, a young soldier returning from leave tells me how little faith he has in Popular Unity. He says its leader, Lafazanis, and Costas Isychos, former Deputy Minister of National Defence, did not protest on 26 January, the day after Syriza came to power, when the government revealed that 70 per cent of the ND-Pasok memorandum were “necessary measures”. Angrily, he asks, “Necessary measures for whom?”

“Isn’t Nadia Valavani in Popular Unity?” asks Giorgos, whose son plays on the same football team as mine. “Wasn’t she saying “DEN PLIRONO” (“I will not pay”) before Syriza was elected? And when she became Alternate Minister of Finance, she demanded we pay the memorandum as a ‘patriotic duty’!”

“Comrades of Popular Unity,” writes a blogger, “you must clarify whether by ‘No’ you mean ‘No until the end’.”

Larisa, a single mother from Bulgaria who cleans houses, is critical of Lafazani’s new party. “They owe an apology to the people because they didn’t leave Syriza when the No of the referendum was turned into a Yes. They left when Tsipras announced new elections and they knew they wouldn’t be on the electoral lists.”

A strongly ideological view is expressed to me by Spiros, an automobile mechanic from the town of Spata. He thinks both Syriza and Popular Unity are “pseudo-socialist” parties. Even the fiery Speaker, Zoi Konstantopoulou, who is supporting Lafazanis, isn’t a “true socialist” to him. Spiros is convinced that Lafazanis and his Left Platform served as a “left cover” for Syriza, and that they “jumped ship” before they were pushed by Tsipras’ snap elections. In other words, they knew they would be expelled from the party anyway.

Who will win the elections? Many believe Tsipras will hit percentages close to those of the January elections. The consensus, however, is that, as the measures are implemented, his government will fall in scandal and corruption. Others are convinced that Tsipras will come in second after New Democracy, and that the next government will be a coalition of all pro-austerity parties: New Democracy, Pasok, and the River. In any event, it is quite possible the next government will closely resemble the current caretaker government of Vassiliki Thanou, Greece's top Supreme Court judge, and first woman prime minister in Greek history.

Syriza supporters see their party’s reelection as the only way for the country to get back on its feet. They are hoping for as low a voter turnout for Popular Unity as possible. 

Lambrini, an employee at a travel agency, says she believes Popular Unity can actually win the upcoming elections. This, however, would only happen if Lafazanis “doesn’t try to steal the No vote for himself”, but instead “leads a popular groundswell of anti-austerity opposition”.  Yet she remains doubtful. “I don’t see Popular Unity really taking people into account – this is probably a second version of Syriza, another top-down organization with big names while simple citizens and organization at the base are absent”.

The most interesting comment comes from Mikis Theodorakis himself, an icon of the left. The famous nonagenarian wrote a letter to Lafazanis asking him not to participate with Popular Unity in the elections. He argues that “today’s Parliament is the main tool in the service of the politics of austerity”, and says its aim is to “cover illegal laws with a democratic cloak”.

“All of you in Syriza believed that by gaining the majority in parliament and becoming a government you would be able to strike at the heart of the System,” he notes.  “This confirms the principle that you can’t hit the System from within the System, because in the end you become the System.” 

Theodorakis told Lafazanis that if he participated in the election and reentered the “sinning Parliament”, he would confront two choices: “Either as opposition you will serve as a cover for the anti-popular decisions of the foreigners, or – if you become the government – you will meet the fate of today’s pro-memorandum Syriza.”  His closing remark cut like a knife: “It [is] a shame the popular forces that will vote for  you will have the same luck as the Syriza supporters, who – like it or not – vote for the memoranda.”  

Deferentially, Lafazanis disagreed. He said Popular Unity, “would not behave like Syriza”. He promised Theodorakis he would cooperate with him outside of parliament in the popular front the old man is calling for.

Realists believe that whatever the outcome of the election, the austerity measures will continue. There will be no miracle, no salvation for Greece, and that Popular Unity is not ready for the contest.

“We’ve become resili (an embarrassment) as a country,” an elderly pensioner sitting next to me on a bench in the working class district of Vironas says. “Everyone’s laughing at us. Greece’s Che Guevara – the young man who was going to change Europe – has quickly thrown in the towel.”

A blogger known as Aidiasmenos (“the disgusted one”) writes that he can’t understand why so many believe Syriza will win the election. “Tsipras got 36 per cent in January but it’s been all downhill since then. The Left Platform abandoned him, the public servants have left him, the pensioners are jumping ship, as are the pro-drachma supporters, not to mention the unemployed. How can he possibly win the election?” 

Tsipras, however, is confident of victory. So much so he announced that he would not cooperate in a government that included the pro-austerity parties of New Democracy, Pasok and River. This confounded and embarrassed a number of pundits who for a week had been saying and writing exactly the opposite.

Myrto, a language teacher at a private evening school, believes Tsipras will win the elections. The reason she gives is stark: “He has closed a deal with Germany to implement the memorandum.”  She believes that in the short term Syriza will be the winner in the elections, but that then “the clock will start working backwards”.

Who can deny Tsipras has made, consciously or not, all the right moves – if keeping himself in power is the measure, that is? Despite the damage done during the negotiations, his decision to hold the referendum brought him great popular support.  This has helped him clean up the internal game – even though he was routed in the “war”.

The message has filtered out to society that Tsipras tried hard and negotiated “like a lion”. Many are prepared to forgive him for the awful results of the negotiations. Tsipras’ greatest asset is that he “ate wood” (the Greek expression for a beating) in Brussels. “At least he tried,” a shopper in the supermarket says. “And that counts for something.”

So despite his 180-degree turn, Tsipras is still by far the most popular politician in Greece. He has timed the elections with Machiavellian perfection. Any further delay would only have weakened his position and strengthened that of his opponents, on both the left and the right.

Another strong card Tsipras holds is purely psychological. Most Greeks are tired of the struggle with the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. They fear that Lafazanis’ new party will opt for an essentially unpopular Grexit.

Plus, the country’s internal opposition hasn’t had time to organise itself. Syriza’s external opposition is also in a state of relative disarray. New Democracy might gain 25 per cent in the elections, but no more.

Seen through this prism, things look good for Greece’s young former prime minister.

By calling early elections, Tsipras has also effectively rid himself of figures like Lafazanis and other recalcitrants who might challenge his authority. An intangible –  although very real – factor that will also work in his favour is that a large contingent of people who voted for Syriza will vote for Tsipras again – out of a sense of embarassment. As Panos, a naval architect, puts it to me: “These people are ashamed of admitting they were trolled so badly by Tsipras.” 

Finally, let us not forget that Syriza is the first party in Greece to have the support of both conservative Kathimerini newspaper and Avgi (Dawn), Syriza’s mouthpiece.

The coming elections will once again have the nature of a referendum. This time, the underlying question is not the memorandum per se. This time, it is all about Tsipras and his need to stay afloat politically. Ironically, Syriza came to power by attacking the "There is no alternative" slogan (TINA). Now Tsipras has managed to make himself “the only alternative” in Greek politics.

So how will the Greek people respond?  The last words will go to Nikita, a cook on a large passenger ship that does the Rafina-Mykonos route. When I ask over a coffee which party he supports, he becomes angry with me. “Party?” he asks, shaking his head. “Instead of talking about what the parties will do, we all ought to start talking about what we will do. Unless we stop them, no one will.”

After a moment, he adds: “Given the absence of a socialist party that will really challenge the local rulers, we have no other choice.”

Like many others here, I will not vote this time.

Evel Masten Economakis has been living in a town 25km east of Athens since 2005. He teaches history, and also works in construction to supplement his family's income. Follow his "View from Athens" series here.