Last stand for Greece's Tsipras after vote drubbing

John HADOULIS
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has to drag his leftist Syriza party out of a ditch after a drubbing of over nine percentage points in the European polls, and a near-sweep in regional elections by the main opposition New Democracy conservatives. (AFP Photo/LOUISA GOULIAMAKI )

Athens (AFP) - Forced into calling early elections next month after a poor showing in EU and local elections on Sunday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will be making a last stand against the odds to stay in power.

Tsipras has to drag his leftist Syriza party out of a ditch after a drubbing of over nine percentage points in the European polls, and a near-sweep in regional elections by the main opposition New Democracy conservatives.

"Following the second round of local elections (on June 2), I will ask the president to immediately call national elections," a visibly disappointed Tsipras said in a televised address.

"I will not run away or quit the struggle for equality, solidarity, social justice," said Tsipras.

A likely date for the ballot is June 30, news reports said.

With over a third of polling stations accounted for, Tsipras' leftist Syriza party scored less than 24 percent in the European vote compared with more than 33 percent for conservative New Democracy party.

And in local elections, early results showed New Democracy in control, or securing outright, the bulk of Greece's 13 regions.

- 'Loss of confidence' -

"Greece has sent a strong message... the people have withdrawn their confidence," said New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Turnout was over 57 percent.

New Democracy candidates are also in the lead in the mayoral races in Athens and Thessaloniki, which will need a second round to declare a winner.

In the European polls, the socialist Kinal party came third at over 7.0 percent, followed by the Communist KKE party at 5.7 percent, according to the voter survey.

Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, whose leadership is on trial for crimes including the murder of an anti-fascist rapper, tallied its lowest score in years at under 5.0 percent and fell from third place to fifth.

Allies insisted that Tsipras had shown remarkable resilience for a leader who had to abandon anti-austerity promises and bow to the reform demands of Greece's creditors to avert a disastrous euro exit.

Tsipras had also resigned in August 2015, less than a year after coming to power, as he was forced to accept an unpopular bailout -- Greece's third -- prompting hardliners in his party to jump ship.

Just in January, 44-year-old Tsipras was reaping international praise after having brokered a deal with his Macedonia counterpart Zoran Zaev to rename Greece's northern neighbour the Republic of North Macedonia.

Tsipras later called the Macedonia deal one of his "greatest legacies" as premier, second only to leading Greece out of the bailout era.

It was an achievement that saw both leaders nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize -- but it sank his coalition government and left Greece's populous north seething.

Under Tsipras, Greece had consistently posted better-than-expected fiscal results, reducing unemployment and returning to modest growth.

The PM had only recently announced sweeping tax cuts on food and dining as well as energy and hotel accommodation, and unveiled an extra monthly stipend for the country's poorest pensioners.

But it was not enough to turn the tide.

Tsipras has been Greece's youngest prime minister in 150 years and the first avowed atheist, with a spate of pioneering equal rights reforms on his watch.

Transgender persons were for the first time given the right to legally determine their chosen sex on official documents.

And surrogate parental rights were awarded to couples in a same-sex civil union.

A former Communist and student leader, Tsipras swiftly rose through the ranks of the Syriza party -- secretary of its youth wing at 25, Athens mayoral candidate at 32, party chief at 33, parliament lawmaker at 35.

Believing that he could persuade Greece's creditors to loosen the country's austerity straitjacket, Tsipras faced them head-on upon taking office in 2015.

But his erratic negotiating tactics -- and posturing by his maverick first finance minister Yanis Varoufakis -- often infuriated his European peers, who accused him of gambling the country's future in the eurozone by engaging in irresponsible brinkmanship.

It took German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's former president Francois Hollande to persuade Tsipras to change course and sign on to more reforms before Greece was pushed out of the common currency.

An engineer by training, Tsipras was born in the suburbs of Athens in 1974 when a seven-year army dictatorship that mercilessly persecuted leftists collapsed.

He has two boys with electronics engineer Betty Baziana, whom he met in high school. They have never married, despite the country's strong conservative traditions.

A lifelong fan of Che Guevara, Tsipras named his youngest son Orfeas Ernesto after the Argentine revolutionary.