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Is Tsipras the New Lula?

CAMBRIDGE – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has the chance to become to his country what South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were to theirs: a man of the left who moves toward fiscal responsibility and freer markets. Like Tsipras, both were elected in the midst of an economic crisis. Both immediately confronted the international financial constraints that opposition politicians can afford to ignore.

On assuming power, Kim and Lula were able to adjust, politically and mentally, to the new realities that confronted them, launching much-needed reforms. Some reforms were “conservative” (or “neo-liberal”) and might not have been possible under politicians of the right. But others were consistent with their lifetime commitments. South Korea under Kim began to rein in the chaebols, the country’s huge family-owned conglomerates. Brazil under Lula implemented Bolsa Familia, a system of direct cash payments to households that is credited with lifting millions out of poverty.

Tsipras and his Syriza party, however, spent their first six months in office still blinkered about financial realities, unable to see things from the perspective of others. The decision to hold a referendum on the bailout terms set by Greece’s creditors showed that they were politically blinkered as well.

If Tsipras were reading from a normal script, he would logically have asked Greeks to vote yes. But he asked them to vote no, which they did by a surprisingly wide margin. He evidently thought that this would strengthen his hand; instead, it merely strengthened the position of those Germans convinced that the time had come to let Greece drop out of the euro.