Greek elections: Alexis Tsipras – kingmaker or deal breaker?By
In his fresh linen suit and crisp white shirt Alexis Tsipras cuts a dashing figure. Standing at the podium, just a 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 Tsipras criss-crosses the country, the message is always the same: “We speak the language of hope,” he says, “where others speak the language of fear.”
In the countdown to a poll, the outcome of which could be as pivotal for Europe as for debt-stricken Athens — with many seeing it as a referendum on Greece’s place in the euro — 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, feel-good, 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 improved dramatically 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 conditions 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 one of the frontrunners in the battle to govern Greece after the indecisive election on 6 May.
Since emerging as that poll’s surprise runner-up, Syriza – an eclectic alliance of ex-communists, former Stalinists, greens and champagne socialists – has gone from strength to strength. Surveys show it running neck and neck with the “pro-European”, centre-right New Democracy, although no party is expected to win an outright majority. In Athens, where nearly half of Greece’s 11 million-strong population lives and which has been worst hit by the belt-tightening, Syriza has stolen the show.
As Tsipras storms from town to village, addressing peoples assemblies and pre-electoral rallies, his is a presence that suddenly nobody can ignore: from Washington to the capitals of Europe and Asia, too, 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 clear that if Athens rescinds the measures and structural reforms seen as vital to kickstarting its moribund economy, the disbursement of further injections of cash will have to stop. Without the money Greece will be forced to default, declare bankruptcy and break away from the eurozone, sending the 17-nation bloc into a tailspin from which the global economy might take decades to recover, if at all. The stakes have never been higher.
“If Syriza comes first, Europe should be very afraid: my expectation is that we would have chaos,” says Professor Kevin Featherstone, head of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics. “There would be huge instability and uncertainty on the 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 like New Democracy that accept the bailout accord in principle — even though some in Syriza have openly embraced the return of the drachma.
With the party recognising the need to reach out to undecided moderate voters, cadres say the leader will seek to placate the fears during a major television appearance on Tuesday. Tempering his speech over 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 programme foresees unemployment benefits being extended, the minimum wage increased and taxes axed 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, prominent Pasok trade unionists 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 Professor 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 will be faced with a severe choice, either to agree to their basic terms, risk the wrath of his rank and file or take Greece into the drachma.”
Tsipras laughs at the suggestions that he is a new Papandreou, preferring to say simply that the politician who died in 1996 was was “a historic figure, a great man”.
But the Syriza leader, who was born four days after the collapse 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 political engineer, who voted Pasok when it first came to power, Tsipras comes from a comfortable, though 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 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 about.
“The system was completely rotten,” he said, insisting that after the election he hoped to create “a protective shield” around low-income Greeks, who have been 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 around 20% of the vote, compared to a mere 4.6% in the 2009 elections, its popularity has clearly soared. On the streets, the party would likely be even stronger than if it were in power as it stepped up opposition to policies that are getting ever closer to tearing Greece apart.