Alexis Tsipras crushed all of his opponents but his victory is a terrible poisoned chalice

Greece’s election results are in. On the face of it, it’s a major victory for incumbent Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party.

Despite polls indicating a much closer race, Tsipras easily swept away his major opponents.

New Democracy were practically neck-and-neck with Syriza in many polls, with Syriza just a fraction of a per cent ahead on average.

In the end, Syriza finished more than seven percentage points ahead of their centre-right opponents, at 35.5% to 28.1%. Add to that the 50 bonus seats that a Greek election winner gets, and Tsipras was within touching distance of an overall majority again.

That means he can go back into coalition with the Independent Greeks, his favoured anti-austerity nationalist party. Most analysts suggested he’d need to ally with one or more of the centrist or centre-left parties in Greece, and he proved them wrong.

His internal opponents have been roundly thrashed too. Popular Unity, the hard-left Syriza offshoot party promoting an exit from the euro and a socialist economic policy, failed to break through the 3% voting barrier. As a result, they get no seats in parliament.

That’s a message to any remaining discontent MPs in Syriza. For one, they have no alternative party to defect to if they leave the government. Secondly, if they unhitch their wagons from Tsipras, they risk complete obliteration.

Syriza’s share of the vote fell by just 0.8%, but the party he leads is actually now more manageable than it was before. Figures like energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, who went to lead Popular Unity, are gone, and it’s clear that those remaining in Syriza owe their re-election at least in some significant part to Tsipras’ patronage.

Euclid Tsakalotos, Greece’s finance minister, is a much less divisive and belligerent figure than his predecessor Yanis Varoufakis, whose personal style grated on other European finance ministers. He’s also unlikely to defy Tsipras and try to forge his own path on economic policy.

So a major Tsipras victory, right? Well, not entirely.

For a hint, here’s what’s coming up in the days ahead, in a note from Deutsche Bank sent out on Monday morning:

The new finance minister will be met with significant challenges from the government’s first day in power. A final set of prior actions to be passed through parliament still needs to be agreed with creditors to disburse the last sub-tranche of the first instalment of funding signed off by the Eurogroup in August, following witch the first full program review can begin in late October or November. This will include two highly controversial issues in particular: a reform of the pension system requiring additional large-scale savings, as well as a new collective wage bargaining framework.

Would Tsipras have considered those reforms in any way a success 12 months ago?

Nine months ago the main thing we knew about Alexis Tsipras was that he’d managed to form an improbable alliance of left-wing groups and take them from a tiny proportion of popular support to become the country’s biggest party. He was a lifelong radical more comfortable protesting on the streets than being hidden behind walls of riot police.

There’s not a lot left of that man. The agreement that Greece brokered in July was practically the same as the one it had rejected in a referendum just weeks earlier. Syriza’s entire platform up until the middle of this year was simple — opposition to the bailout agreements negotiated by Athens, and the austerity that came with them. Now it’s saying it’s the best force in Greek politics to implement the third bailout.

The real winners of this election don’t live in Athens at all, but in Frankfurt, Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

In January, there was feverish discussion of what Syriza meant for Europe. Eurocrats worried that radical movements like Podemos in Spain be buoyed by the Greek example and seek their own concessions. The opposite now seems to be the case, and mainstream politicians across Europe can clearly demonstrate that radical parties don’t win anything from Europe.

The challenge now facing the Greek government is effectively the one that it has been facing for years — it has no access to international capital markets, so it’s reliant on European creditors. That means privatisation, fiscal cuts and unwanted economic deregulation in exchange for cash.

If anything, the country has actually taken a step back, or even several steps. The capital controls brought in before the referendum will have likely caused a sharp economic contraction, and so a return to capital markets is now further away.

The country needs to prove it’s implementing the bailout agreement to get debt relief. Failure to prove that could put political strains on Tsipras, and further European negotiations are going to start on a sour note. In July, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was openly pushing for Greece to leave the eurozone, and another crisis would start with that option firmly on the table.

So it’s a technical victory for Tsipras, but it’s hard to envy his prize. A lifelong left-wing radical governing a country with a shell-shocked economy, no prospects for rapid recovery, and an economic plan that would make Margaret Thatcher’s look unambitious.

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