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Greece’s political crisis is partly the eurozone’s fault

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Syriza, Greece's ruling party, is a disaster. Hugo Dixon's indictment is as good as any:

Tsipras [the leader of Syriza] has made a series of wild promises that he cannot deliver. Before January’s election, he pledged that he would tear up the country’s bailout programme while staying in the euro. The two are almost certainly incompatible goals, as the Greek people are now discovering at huge cost.

In advance of Sunday’s referendum, he has given further assurances. One is that savers’ bank deposits are safe. He also said he will have a deal with Greece’s creditors within 48 hours of the plebiscite, if they vote no to the bailout plan. In fact, deposits are at risk and the chance of a deal in two days is virtually nil. A good democrat only promises what he or she can deliver. Tsipras is a demagogue.

But, as they say on the infomercials, that's not all! Greece is a weak state with a failing economy that is, ultimately, dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the eurozone — and Syriza has done everything possible to squander that goodwill and isolate Greece. As Matt Yglesias writes:

Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party took office in January and were greeted with a good amount of optimism in international circles. After all, their basic critique of the status quo in Greece had a lot of merit. To improve on it, they needed to do two things:

Persuade Greece-skeptical foreigners that an outsider political party that had no role in creating the mess in Greece was going to be able to deliver on reform in a massive way — so much reform that Greece should be allowed to engage in less austerity.

Form a broad front with the Social Democratic politicians who lead the governments of France and Italy and play key roles in coalitions in Germany and the Netherlands to shift Europe's overall strategy to one more focused on creating adequate aggregate demand rather than cutting wages.

They delivered on neither of these things, instead alienating all potential partners with irresponsible rhetoric about Nazis and unreasonable demands that the main left-of-center parties elsewhere in Europe wouldn't endorse.

Syriza's failures are being taken, in some quarters, as evidence that Greece doesn't deserve further leniency. But the truth is the opposite: Syriza shows what will happen if Greece does get further leniency.

What did the rest of the eurozone think was going to happen? The Greek economy has been crushed. Greece's recession is now worse than America's Great Depression — and with less hope of recovery. Decisions that are causing the Greek people immense suffering are being made by foreign technocrats.

Did someone, somewhere, think this situation was going to lead to improvements in the Greek political system? Electorates that are half-crazed by economic pain do not tend to make wise political decisions. Among the many hard lessons Europe learned during the 20th century, surely that was foremost among them.

This is where the eurozone deserves some blame for the rise of Syriza. If the foreign technocrats thought the politicians who were running the country before Tsipras swept into power were so great, maybe they should have cut them a better deal so they would have a better record to run on than 25 percent unemployment and unending economic pain. But permitting Greece to fall into this kind of perpetual economic crisis and then being shocked when they elect untested politicians who promise radical change is a bit odd.

This is why I'm confused by pieces like Tyler Cowen's, where the main point is that Syriza is a disaster. Of course Syriza is a disaster. But what does it mean to say that "the Greek government has handled the last few months so badly it really is incumbent on them to show they will do better"? Or else what? The eurozone will take out its frustrations on the Greek people, who will likely, in turn, embrace yet worse demagogues?

Much of the divide in commentary around Greece has less to do with which solutions people support than which voters they identify with. Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, for instance, both agree that the eurozone should offer massive debt relief to Greece. But Krugman is focused on all the reasons Greek voters are right to be furious with European technocrats, while Cowen is more sympathetic to all the reasons non-Greek voters are right to be furious that the Greeks haven't elected better technocrats.

The irony, of course, is that the best way to get Greeks to vote more like Germans would be for Germans to vote to help Greeks. But so long as the suffering of the Greek people continues to deepen, the quality of the leaders they embrace is likely to continue to deteriorate.