ATHENS – As he campaigns himself as a man of the people and a working-class hero, Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras, 37, locked in a tight duel with New Democracy Conservative head Antonis Samaras to win the critical June 17 elections, has known a life mostly of comfort and critics say he has no experience running a country and few ideas beyond opposing the austerity measures demanded by international lenders that have workers, pensioners and the poor on a road to poverty.
Born into a comfortable middle-class family, Tsipras has a post-graduate degree in engineering and worked only briefly in construction before turning to full-time politics and before being handed the SYRIZA party leadership on a platter four years ago, Reuters reported. Since then he has transformed an obscure fringe party into one of the two strongest forces in Greek politics, propelled into second place in stalemated elections last month by rage at tough conditions tied to a $173 billion bailout on hold until the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) Troika waits to see if he wins and can form a government that would repeal the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions it demanded in return for the loans, including a first rescue package of $152 billion that has kept Greece alive for two years.
Tsipras has not gotten his hands dirty by working. The former Communist Youth party leader began his career in student protests in the 1990’s and in 2001, he tried to take part in anti-G8 demonstrations in Genoa against globalization movements but was stopped by Italian police. His defenders say experienced politicians have run Greece into the ground and new blood is needed. “So what if he doesn’t have the experience?” SYRIZA deputy Panagiotis Kouroublis told Reuters. “If he can run a party, he can run a country. Greece has suffered from people who promised one thing and did another.”
Indeed, Tsipras has capitalized on the massive failures of the once-ruling New Democracy Conservatives and their otherwise bitter ideological rivals, the PASOK Socialists, who created the economic crisis by packing public payrolls with hundreds of thousands of needless workers for generations in return for votes, and were repudiated in the May 6 elections that failed to give any parties enough support to form a government before coalition talks collapsed.
Tsipiras has been riding high by siding with workers, pensioners and the poor and vowing to cancel the Memorandum with the Troika as his first act if he wins and can form a government but has recently backed off to say he wants to renegotiate the terms. He said he can do that without forcing Greece out of the Eurozone and back to the drachma, a stance critics said is impossible and contradictory and shows his inexperience in politics. He also promised to nationalize banks, stop privatizations and not go along with another $15 billion in cuts insisted upon by the Troika. But what does he know of the people he wants to govern?
Tsipras has had a relatively easy ride to head a Leftist movement whose older members suffered persecution or exile from the 1967-1974 period of military rule back to the Nazi occupation of World War II and has known life only under democracy. He was born, a few days after the military junta fell, into an Athens family which owned a small construction business. Party members who rushed to congratulate Tsipras after the May 6 balloting said he had reacted with disbelief: “Are you serious? This is for real?” he was quoted as asking when he discovered SYRIZA had won 16.8 percent in a highly fragmented field.
Analysts said he handled well the transformation of his party from a group that tacitly tolerated anarchists, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras said SYRIZA sympathized with terrorists and other far-leftists, to one backed by large swathes of the population. Polls showed SYRIZA’s support has risen nearly 10 points since the May elections.
“Most of his supporters voted for SYRIZA for the first time. The social make-up of the party changed and he managed that well,” Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters told Reuters. But Tsipras has done less well in managing his personal success. “He appeared a little arrogant, like the victory was a given,” Panagopoulos said. “He has no experience in managing a country and nobody knows how he will do.” Just ahead of the critical vote, Tsipras returned to the only form he knows: rhetoric. He said that as of June 18, “The evil forces of internal graft and the foreign loan sharks will stop drafting bailout plans,” he said.
Tsipras not only sounds different than traditional politicians, he looks and acts differently. His youthful looks and refusal to wear a tie to the most formal of events make him stand out in a room of older political leaders. He has one child and expecting a second with his partner Betty. The two have not married, in defiance of traditional Greek society. He has openly backed gay marriage and gay adoption. “He often interrupts party meetings to go pick up his kid,” Kouroublis said. “He’s very human. He really listens to what you have to say and takes it into account.”
Another issue Tsipras must deal with at home is his party being flooded with former socialist trade unionists, bent on stopping reforms and protecting special interests. “Everyone who wants things to stay as they are is now going to Tsipras,” a former government official told Reuters. “It’s becoming the coalition of the drachma.” Political analysts say the people who rushed to SYRIZA will be easily disappointed and may abandon him if he lets them down. “His mandate will be to renegotiate the bailout deal and keep Greece in the euro. If he wins he will realize the problem. His image will collapse,” analyst John Loulis told Reuters. “Public opinion is not in love with Tsipras, it’s angry with the others.”
(Sources: Reuters, Kathimerini)