Alexis Tsipras, Greek 'Che Guevara' on the cusp of power

John Hadoulis
Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras greets supporters after casting his vote in a polling station in Athens (AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki)

Athens (AFP) - Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old leader of radical left-wing party Syriza which is favourite to win Sunday's Greek election, has come a long way from his days as a Communist youth activist.

But the man who has become a figurehead for the challenge to the eurozone's austerity policies still retains a youthful dislike of ties and a passion for Che Guevara.

Tipped to be his country's youngest prime minister since 1865, the Greek public first learned his name in 1990 when as a 17-year-old he led a school sit-in and told a TV interviewer: "We want the right to judge for ourselves whether to skip class."

An engineer by training, Tsipras was born in an Athens suburb in July 1974, a fateful year for Greece. It marked the collapse of a seven-year army dictatorship that mercilessly persecuted leftists and Communists, and culminated in a bloody crackdown against a student uprising.

Once a brash motorbike-riding Communist activist, the boyish father of two children has subtly modified his image as power and responsibility beckoned.

The nerdy glasses went long ago, the trademark Tintin-style crest of hair has been flattened, and, in another step towards premiership, Tsipras penned articles for German and Italian newspapers describing Greece's treatment at the hand of its EU-IMF creditors as "fiscal waterboarding".

He has made efforts to improve his command of English and sought to boost his international standing through meetings with Pope Francis, European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and even German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble -- a man whose preoccupation with fiscal discipline he has often attacked.


- 'Denying reality' -


One thing has not changed -- his shirts are still open-necked. Relaxing with journalists on the day before voting, he joked: "I'll put a tie on when we get a haircut (debt reduction)."

Tsipras faced his first crisis in 2008 when Athens and other cities were rocked by youths protesting the fatal shooting of a teenage boy by a policeman.

Syriza gave political backing to the rioters but the move backfired with voters and in the next election the party received just 4.6 percent of the vote.

"(We) were the only political power to defend the right and causes of this uprising, and we paid for it," Tsipras later wrote.

But when the economic crisis engulfed Greece in 2010, plunging the country into the worst recession in memory, voters were more inclined to listen to Syriza.

Tsipras and his top staff have stressed that reforms demanded by the EU and the IMF in return for loans designed to stave off bankruptcy have caused a "humanitarian crisis" in Greece.

He has accused the conservative-led coalition government of "denying reality" by "dogmatically" adhering to a failed austerity recipe that has left over a million people unemployed in a country of 11 million. The jobless rate among the under-25s is especially high at around 50 percent.

In three years, Syriza has increased its support five-fold and went into the general election polling at over 30 percent.

The outgoing conservatives of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras have argued that a victory for Syriza would reverse years of painful fiscal efforts just as Greece is about to reap the benefits.

But Tsipras has turned the argument on its head, wondering how the conservatives could possibly promise to safeguard Greek incomes after imposing a barrage of taxes in the last two years.

"The only thing they have not said is that Syriza will round up children and steal wives," he joked at one rally.

Syriza pledge to raise salaries and pensions, halt layoffs and freeze the privatisation of state assets -- key elements of reforms demanded by Greece's EU-IMF creditors.

Even more crucially for its relations with Greece's EU peers, the party wants to renegotiate the 240-billion-euro ($269 billion) EU-IMF bailout, erase over 50 percent of the country's enormous debt and divert bond repayment funds to the country's economic recovery.

Their critics say these are impossible demands, but Syriza maintain that Greece's creditors will agree to renegotiate the bailout when faced with a leftist government elected with a strong popular mandate.