By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - So divided has Syriza's youth wing become over the direction of Greece's leftist party, that when its council planned to convene at the end of August, the meeting was abandoned. Too many of its 71 members were on the point of quitting.
The incident showed the disillusionment Syriza's twenty-somethings feel with leader Alexis Tsipras, the former Communist student activist they once celebrated as one of their own.
In just seven months as premier, Tsipras, under pressure from Greece's creditors, has backtracked on his pre-election promises to end austerity.
"Syriza's youth is almost over, very few people are staying behind," said one of those who walked out.
Tsipras has called an election on Sept. 20 in an effort to win a fresh mandate to push through the economic reforms that are a condition of Greece's latest 86 billion euro bailout.
But Syriza's lead over its rivals has crumbled, with one poll this week showing the conservative New Democracy party in front.
Support from those aged 18-44 - once the backbone of Syriza's support according to pollsters - has plummeted. The most popular party for 18-24-year-olds now is the far right Golden Dawn, while Syriza languishes in fourth place, data by the pollster Alco show.
A fractured election result could spell more turmoil for a country battered by recession and high unemployment, and risks derailing the implementation of the bailout program that is up for review by the creditors in October.
"These elections started as something 'easy' for Tsipras and have evolved into something extremely complicated," said Thomas Gerakis, the head of pollster Marc.
"The key issue in this race is what the former Syriza voters will do. Will Syriza manage to rally its former voters?"
Having failed to muster the numbers for a formal meeting, the majority of Syriza's central youth council confined itself to issuing a statement on Tuesday, denouncing the party's "bankruptcy" and withdrawing its support for the election. The council was left with just 27 members at the last count.
It is a remarkable turnaround for a party that stormed to power in January promising voters more jobs and an end to years of wage and pension cuts.
During that election, Syriza's young supporters played an outsize role on the frontline of the campaign, be it handing out leaflets, holding rallies or organizing festivals.
At forty years of age, Tsipras became the country's youngest ever prime minister, and to many seemed a breath of fresh air compared to the dynasties that have dominated Greek politics for years. His government's former spokesman is 35 years old.
But after months of bad-tempered negotiations with the country's lenders, and with banks shut and the economy on the brink of collapse, Tsipras capitulated to the creditors' demands to raise taxes and slash spending to tackle Greece's debt.
Even though the standoff with the creditors worsened the country's economic pain, opinion polls initially suggested that Tsipras remained Greece's most popular leader, because he had at least put up a decent fight. His decision to call a referendum on the bailout incensed the creditors but played well at home.
But now many are furious and may switch their allegiance to smaller parties or boycott the vote. Young Greeks have been hit especially hard by the debt crisis, with more than half of those aged 15-24 out of work, the highest proportion in Europe. Many live at home, supported by their parents and grandparents, or emigrate.
"He didn't try hard enough," said Yannis Aggelidis, a 22-year-old university student who voted for Tsipras in January but may abstain or vote for a small anti-capitalist party next time.
"He had a chance and he lost it. If he had fulfilled only part of what Syriza had promised he would have stayed in power for a very long time."
Divisions in Syriza's youth wing began to emerge after Greek voters delivered a resounding 'no' to the bailout terms in July, then saw their government capitulate to Greece's creditors on point after point in the weeks that followed.
For many of Syriza's youth council members, the final straw was an interview Tsipras gave in August to Alpha TV, in which he wrote off the prospects of today's young people but hoped his own younger children could prosper.
"Sadly, we lost this generation due to the bailouts. The generation of people in their twenties today, young people, young scientists go abroad, unfortunately," Tsipras said.
To be sure, there is still time for Syriza to claw back support. Pollsters say that about half of the undecided voters, especially women, are former Syriza backers.
"The people who were Syriza's core voters are scattered, and are deeply concerned," Dimitris Mavros from pollster MRB said.
But rival parties, including New Democracy and PASOK, which was in power in the early years of the crisis, are stepping up their efforts to win young voters. For example, PASOK has appointed 33-year-old Pavlos Christidis as its new spokesman.
For undecided voters like Nefeli Tsikrika, a 24-year-old law student and former Syriza supporter, it's hard to know which party to turn to.
"We are disappointed. It's not what we expected," she said. "I was a supporter, but I'm not proud of it."
"Then again you reach a deadlock, you don't know what to vote for. Is any government in Greece actually free to govern or is it bound to the demands of foreign powers?"
(Writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Janet McBride)