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Tsipras Parlays Politics of Defiance Into Greek Battle for Euro

Syriza Party Leader Alexis Tsipras
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza Party, center, waves to supporters as he arrives for a news conference in Athens. Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

Taped to the door of Syriza’s newest local office, a former bank branch on a busy central Athens street where Greeks used to line up to get loans, is a photocopy of a clenched fist and the words “to be continued.”

The political party, which promises to renege on bailout agreements yet keep the euro, moved into the area after leader Alexis Tsipras and his simple, familiar message of hope and resistance steamrolled over the political establishment in an inconclusive election on May 6. The 37-year-old aims to complete the task on June 17 when Greeks vote again.

“We submit today to the Greek people our proposal for government, the only credible realistic alternative,” Tsipras said to applause from party supporters as he set out his plans in the Greek capital on June 1. “You either implement the bailout or you cancel it. We will cancel it.”

Defiance is the motif of Tsipras’s political career, stemming from the 1973 student uprising the year before he was born that helped bring down a hated military dictatorship. His unwavering opposition to the spending cuts tied to the 240 billion euros ($302 billion) pledged to keep Greece in the euro has set him on collision course with European leaders that may now climax as he bids to lead the country.

The final polls two weeks before the ballot suggested that Tsipras is holding and building on the momentum as the country endures its worst recession since World War II, making the likely outcome too close to call.

Greek Product

“Tsipras is a product of the post-dictatorship Greek society,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale University, who grew up in Greece during the same period. “He came of age during a period of great political and economic turmoil in Greece with lots of riots, demonstrations, terrorism, and political instability.”

Tsipras is bidding to turn his firebrand politics of the street into the biggest parliamentary force and displace Pasok and New Democracy, the two parties that have traded power since the military regime collapsed in disarray in 1974.

Syriza already leapfrogged Pasok, which prevailed in the October 2009 election under leader George Papandreou before the extent of Greece’s economic troubles unfolded. Tsipras’s pledges to restore wages and pensions and stop state asset sales in the face of European resistance evoke the defiance that swept Pasok founder Andreas Papandreou, George’s father, to power in 1981, according to Kalyvas.

‘New Order’

Nearly four in 10 voters backing Tsipras on May 6 were Pasok supporters and 22 percent of Syriza voters work for the state, according to a study by Public Issue. Syriza also garnered the lion’s share of those aged 18 to 24, more than half of whom are unemployed.

“Suddenly, here’s a young man saying let the world go to hell, we are the new order, with extreme self-confidence,” said Thanos Veremis, a professor emeritus of modern history at Athens University. “The others are the old-style mediocrity and he is the new generation of mediocrity. Whether he’s a new style politician remains to be seen.”

Tsipras grew up in the middle-class Athens suburb of Ambelokipi, far from the elite schools and foreign universities that fostered generations of political leaders like his rival Antonis Samaras, 61, of the New Democracy party.

One of Us

On paper, he lives a modest life, comparable to many Greeks. He made 22,872 euros from his parliamentary duties in 2009 and 25,332 euros from other activities, which aren’t defined in the source of wealth statement all lawmakers are obliged to submit to parliament.

Tsipras owns a 114 square-meter apartment in Athens, which he shares with his partner, Betty Baziana, who is expecting their second child, according to documents submitted to parliament. Samaras had personal income of 217,000 euros and about five pieces of property, state news agency ANA cited comparable documents as saying.

“Because he is a young guy, there’s hope he might do something, even if he forms a government for only one month,” said Paris Vassis, 40, who is unemployed and will vote for Syriza again on June 17. “He will make history. He’s already made history, because what he’s done can’t be changed.”

Tsipras earned his political spurs during a high-school revolt in 1990, joining the Communist Youth of Greece just after the Berlin Wall fell.

He went on to study civil engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, better known as the Polytechnic, the site of the 1973 uprising. The event is commemorated every year with rallies and protests at the U.S. Embassy, seen as the sponsor of the eight-year military dictatorship.

Political Student

At the head of a 15-member committee of students in 1990, Tsipras became one of the leaders of the protests against the education reforms of Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, giving interviews about the need for students, parents and unions to be included in talks.

The stand-off led to universities and schools shutting down for months and the resignation of the education minister.

“He’s very representative of many political students, students who spend most of their time in politics,” said Veremis, who met Tsipras when heading the National Council of Education. “He can’t negotiate with his peers. The only thing he can do is block the traffic on major roads, or close universities or take over classes. He can do that very well.”

Mayoral Bid

His political career includes an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Athens for 2006 before being elected president of Synaspismos, the biggest of the parties that make up Syriza, in February 2008. He took his first parliamentary seat after the 2009 election, the start of the European debt crisis when George Papandreou revealed the deficit was four times the ceiling permitted. Syriza won 13 seats in the 300-seat chamber.

Last month, voters gave him 52 seats and he was 130,000 voters short of placing first and receiving the extra 50 bonus seats granted under Greek law. Those went to New Democracy and Samaras, who garnered 108 seats and failed to form a coalition. Pasok managed 41 seats, a decline of 119 from 2009.

Unlike Samaras, Tsipras has never wavered in his condemnation of the policy choices that led to the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailouts. He sought for a referendum on IMF involvement as early as April 2010.

As opposition mounted on the streets and Greeks began holding daily rallies outside the Athens legislature in June last year, Tsipras demanded elections. He called the daily gatherings “a new lower house” of parliament.

‘Peaceful Revolution’

“If what we’re being asked to do is to sell even the Acropolis, then the only people who can respond are the Greek people,” he said on May 24 last year as then Prime Minister Papandreou tried to rally support for austerity measures.

On the night of May 6, Tsipras watched the results from his home with a close group of friends, according to Nikos Pappas, a school friend who was there. They took photos of the television screens with their mobile phones and tweeted them. Hours later, Tsipras told Greeks the bailout was over.

“This is a message of peaceful revolution,” he said. “We will do whatever we can to form a government to cancel the loan accord of servitude and cancel the memorandum of bankruptcy.”

Tsipras has bid to become the poster boy for an end to austerity-for-funds policies directed by Germany.

While he declined to be interviewed for this story, he appeared on international television, traveled to Paris and Berlin and met with Greek military officials to discuss defense spending. On June 6, he called the ambassadors from Group of 20 nations to a briefing on Syriza’s policies.

Close Vote

In the final polls before this week’s vote, one, by Kapa SA, showed New Democracy retaining its lead over Syriza, with the support of 26.1 percent of 1,012 Greeks surveyed. Syriza had 23.6 percent. That poll showed that Syriza gained 3.5 percentage points in a week, compared with less than a percentage point for New Democracy.

Tsipras says a vote for Syriza is a vote for ending the bailout, not ditching the euro, which has lost 4.8 percent against the dollar since the May 6 vote while the Greek benchmark stock index sank to the lowest since November 1992.

Polls consistently show Greeks overwhelmingly reject a return to the drachma, with nearly nine in 10 wanting to keep the euro, according to 1,010 respondents in a survey by MRB Hellas on May 29 to May 30.

“The political campaign in these elections is primarily about framing them: a referendum on the euro or a referendum on the bailout agreement,” said Kalyvas at Yale. “Syriza is winning the framing battle.”

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