Grexit may now be his best option. Photo: Getty Images
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Failure may now be the least-worst option for Syriza

Abjectly losing the negotiations in Brussels, and being kicked out of the Eurozone, might just be the best outcome that Syriza can hope for, says Michael Chessum in Athens.

Just over a week ago, while most of the world predicted that Greece would vote Yes in its referendum and that the government would fall, almost every campaigner and bypasser we met predicted that No would scrape it. They didn’t predict the massive 61 per cent mandate that Syriza would get for resisting austerity, but the universal response you got from campaigners – especially during and after the gigantic rally in Syntagma Square two days before the poll – was “yes, I think we’ll win.”

This weekend, there is a similar but less pronounced gap, focussed not on the feeling in the streets but on negotiating rooms thousands of miles away where the fate of Greece and of the dreams that Syriza carries with it are being decided upon – or torn up, depending on your perspective. Some – including, apparently, the departed Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis – simply refuse to believe that the Greek deal, no matter how much betrayal it contemplates, will be accepted by Schauble and his allies in the Eurogroup. In both cases, the subconscious predictions made on the Greek left and beyond may well stem at least as much from a desperate sense of hope as they do from a political calculation, let alone ‘game theory’. As with winning the referendum, the rejection of the deal by the Eurozone is in many ways the only way out for the current Syriza administration – a means of saving it from its own capitulation.

Over the weekend, large numbers of young Athenians head to nearby islands to get out of the city, go camping and swim. On a ferry going in the opposite direction from the small island of Agistri this afternoon, I chatted to Nefeli, 23, and Ioanna, 20, both students and, as it turned out, members of Syriza. “We voted for a leftist government,” says Nefeli. “Then we voted, 61% of us voted, for ‘no’. But they still want to destroy us, they still want to destroy the left.” After months and months of fighting the country’s creditors, the tone of many on the Greek left and in the wider population is now understandably one of exasperation.

Many Greeks, though they disagree with the deal and the idea of another memorandum, do not blame Tsipras primarily for the current situation. The emphasis for many is on the behaviour of the Eurozone – as Nefeli puts it, “not the people of the EU but its leaders” – which has pushed Greek society to breaking point, and tested many Greeks’ support for membership of the EU. Tsipras, she says, is “doing his best”. But the credibility of the government is in jeopardy as a result of the proposed new deal, in the context of widespread politicisation and high expectations. “People have started to think more,” says Ioanna. “And I’m afraid that they won’t believe the left anymore.”

A poll for Skai, a right wing local news station, announced in time for the parliamentary vote on Friday, declared that 55.5% of Greeks ‘feel fear’ at the idea of a Grexit. But in the current climate, everything is scary: a unilateral default and a return to the Drachma would bring chaos, at least for the moment, while a continuation of the austerity contained in another memorandum would mean more suicides, more poverty, more desolation. Both outcomes bring a humanitarian crisis; and many of the 55.5 per cent who fear a Grexit will now be concluding that it is inevitable, even desirable.

In many ways, winning the referendum was the real gamble for Tsipras. Falling at that hurdle would have meant, at least in the short term, the return of the old order and the implementation of austerity, while the left resisted cleanly from opposition. Falling from power in a few weeks’ time, having sold out to Brussels in spite of an overwhelming popular mandate, could, after a bit of time and political stagnation, bring much darker forces to the fore: “If the left falls,” says Nefeli, “Golden Dawn is next. That’s what history tells us”. The far-right in Greece has positioned itself cleverly, and has been waiting for exactly this kind of compromise. Abjectly losing the negotiations in Brussels, and being kicked out of the Eurozone, might just be the best outcome that Syriza can hope for. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue