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Greek elections: Alexis Tsipras – kingmaker or deal breaker?

Category : Business

The young, leftist leader of Syriza is rallying support ahead of the election rerun, but there are fears about his ambitious plans

In his fresh linen suit and crisp white shirt, Alexis Tsipras cuts a dashing figure. And on the podium on Sunday, exactly one week before Greeks cast their ballots in the most crucial election since their country emerged from the ashes of civil war, the young leftist leader was on vintage form, fists punching the air as the crowd cheered on the man many have come to see as Greece’s salvation in its greatest hour of need.

On Sunday, it was Chios. On Monday, Heraklion, the capital of Crete. On Tuesday, Athens. But as he crisscrosses Greece, the message is the same. “We speak the language of hope,” says Tsipras, “where others speak the language of fear.”

In the countdown to a vote that could be as pivotal for Europe as for debt-stricken Athens – with many seeing it as a referendum on Greece’s place in the eurozone – the politician is on a roll.

The language of hope is what Tsipras is good at. More than two years into an economic crisis that is increasingly being compared to a war, Tsipras’ fiery, feelgood, anti-austerity rhetoric has gone down a treat. So, too, have his fierce denunciations of the corrupt political elite, crooked bankers and barbaric measures that have led to Greece’s “undignified” descent into penury and misery.

Like every war, says the telegenic politician, the first casualty is truth. The Greeks – the eurozone’s poorest nation despite living standards having leapt since joining the single currency – have been duped into thinking that there is only one way out of their economic mess, “through the cruel austerity Madame Merkel and the IMF have inflicted upon us”.

The truth, he argues, lies elsewhere: in the ability to think outside the box, in solutions that are “just and dignified”. The memorandum of understanding outlining the onerous terms Greece must meet to acquire EU-IMF loans to keep its insolvent economy afloat has to be “radically renegotiated”, if not torn up.

It is heady stuff. Six weeks ago, Tsipras was barely known beyond the borders of his homeland. Today, his Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), is a frontrunner in the battle to rule the country. Since emerging as the surprise runner-up of May’s indecisive elections, Syriza – an eclectic alliance of ex-communists, former Stalinists, greens and socialists – has gone from strength to strength.

Surveys show it level with the centre-right New Democracy, although no party is expected to win an outright majority. In Athens, where nearly half of Greece’s 11 million people live, and which has been worst hit by the austerity, Syriza has stolen the show.

As Tsipras storms from town to village, addressing peoples’ assemblies and pre-election rallies, his is a presence that nobody can ignore: from Washington to the capitals of Europe and Asia, Syriza’s meteoric rise from fringe party to possible kingmaker in the next Greek parliament is now being watched closely.

It’s easy to understand why. Creditors have made it clear that if Athens rescinds the structural reforms seen as vital to kickstarting its moribund economy, further injections of cash will stop. Without the money, Greece will have to default, declare bankruptcy and leave the eurozone, sending the 17-nation bloc into a tailspin from which the global economy might take decades to recover. The stakes have never been higher.

“If Syriza comes first, Europe should be very afraid: my expectation is that … we would have chaos,” says Prof Kevin Featherstone, head of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics. “There would be huge instability and uncertainty on international financial markets and frenzy [among EU leaders] with a government that is a loose coalition and lacking clarity of purpose being forced to make decisions.”

Tsipras, who turns 38 next month, has vehemently rejected accusations that his party’s desire is to exit the eurozone – denouncing the charge as scaremongering to force Greeks into voting for parties such as New Democracy that accept the bailout accord in principle – even though some in Syriza have openly embraced the drachma’s return.

With the party recognising the need to reach out to undecided moderates, cadres say the leader will seek to placate the fears in a television appearance on Tuesday. Tempering his speech at the weekend, he said: “Renegotiating the terms of the loan agreement is the most beneficial strategy for both sides.”

But while Tsipras has the freshness of youth on his side – and in the countdown to the poll has seemed remarkably vital in contrast to his fatigued, ashen-faced opponents – he has been criticised for scoring easy points as a demagogue and a populist.

In recent weeks he has spoken of the need to nationalise banks, expand the public sector and stop all forms of privatisation, including the handover of public beaches to private firms. His economic policy would extend unemployment benefits, raise the minimum wage and cut taxes in what would amount to a complete reversal of the policies Greece has been forced to adopt in exchange for financial assistance.

“Syriza is a manifestation of a deep-rooted Greek culture, the underdog culture of feeling threatened from outside,” Featherstone says. “It is especially deep-rooted among the economically vulnerable who fear international competition and are ripe for populist leadership.”

Increasingly, Tsipras has been likened to Andreas Papandreou, the Pasok party leader who was swept to power in 1981 promising to take Greece out of the then-EEC and Nato. The socialist strongman has been much blamed for instigating the state profligacy that has since brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy.

Tellingly, Pasok trade unionist leaders have turned their backs on the party – which sees the loan agreement as the only way out of the crisis – to support Syriza. The switch of allegiance has raised howls of protest that the leftist group has become the receptacle for Greek civil servants who want to hold on to past privileges and benefits.

“The difference is Papandreou appeared in the late 70s and he had time to reverse his policies,” said Prof Dimitris Keridis, who teaches political science at Panteion University. “But today there is neither the time nor the money to moderate the expectations he has raised, since Greece is totally dependent on its creditors. If he [Tsipras] wins, he’ll be faced with a severe choice: either to agree to their basic terms [and] risk the wrath of his rank and file, or take Greece into the drachma.”

Tsipras laughs at the idea that he is a new Papandreou, preferring to say simply that the politician, who died in 1996, was “a historic figure, a great man”. But the Syriza leader, who was born four days after the end of military rule on 28 July 1974, does not disagree that he has been influenced by the atmosphere that Papandreou, a radical leftist when he formed Pasok out of an anti-junta resistance movement, helped create. Some in Syriza also speak of “armed struggle”.

The son of a engineer, who voted Pasok when it first came to power, Tsipras comes from a comfortable but highly politicised background. The youngest of three children, he followed his older siblings in signing up to the communist youth party (KNE), soon becoming the face of high school sits-ins by students protesting against government reforms.

In a system that had bred so many hopes and expectations with the return of democracy, Tsipras found much to be angry about, admitting in an interview with the Guardian last month that with its endemic corruption and cronyism Greece was “far removed” from the country either he or his parents had dreamed of. “The system was completely rotten,” he said, saying that after the election he hoped to create “a protective shield” around poor Greeks, the worst hit by the crisis.

But whether the unflappable Tsipras wins the ballot or not, analysts believe that in many ways he is already the victor.

With Syriza poised to garner about 20% of the vote, compared with a mere 4.6% in the 2009 elections, its popularity has already clearly soared. On the streets, the party would likely be even stronger than in power as it stepped up opposition to policies that with each passing day are getting ever closer to tearing Greece apart.

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