Greece’s Alexis Tsipras: The Man Who Could Break Europe

Sunday’s elections in Greece could bring to power a party that’s pitting the debt-ridden south of Europe against the rich north. Can its leader’s charisma carry the day?

01.24.15 5:30 PM ET

In 2012, when Alexis Tsipras last ran to be prime minister of Greece, his compatriots were quite literally killing themselves  in public squares because of the tough austerity measures that had strangled the country’s economy. 

Tsipras, just 37 years old at the time, personable, extremely telegenic, took a page from his playbook as a student activist to rabble-rouse for a better life. Tsipras’s office was adorned with a poster of Ernesto “Che” Guevera. (His youngest son is named Ernesto.) And he rarely wore a necktie—especially when he tooled around Athens on his German BMW motorcycle.

His alternative-left Syriza party, he said, was the ticket out of the hell that Greece had become.  “We have never been in such a bad place,” he told The Daily Beast back then.  “Greeks are on their knees and leaving the country en masse. This is not an acceptable future for a European state.” 

Back then, Tsipras promised to guide Greece to a better future, which he proposed would be one without the single European currency and thus outside what’s called the Eurozone.

In the end, Tsipras lost the election, which was played out in two rounds after no clear winner emerged from the first poll.  But the fact that Syriza won 27 percent of the vote meant that more than a quarter of Greeks thought his plan had legs, and that worried mightily the powers that be Berlin and Brussels.

Leaders from the rich states in the northern tier launched an anti-Syriza campaign that hurt the untested young leader among those who worried that leaving the euro would be disastrous.  "If Syriza comes first, Europe should be very afraid: my expectation is that we would have chaos," Kevin Featherstone, head of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics told The Guardian  at the time. "There would be huge instability and uncertainty on international financial markets and frenzy with a government that is a loose coalition and lacking clarity of purpose being forced to make decisions."

Tsipras, who is back on the ballot on Sunday, has changed a lot since that last electoral run.  Back then his partner was pregnant with little Ernesto. Now Tsipras spends more time carting his two kids around in the family sedan than joyriding on his beloved bike.  He still isn’t photographed much in a tie, but his approach is far more tempered and moderate. This time he is running on a promise not to leave the eurozone.  (He now calls his 2012 campaign promise a “paranoid plan.”) And this time, he might just win because many of the negative projections have come true and things in Greece have gotten worse.  More than 200,000 Greeks have left the country in the last five years, and austerity has forced many businesses to shutter up or go off the radar.  Greece’s black market economy is now estimated to account for nearly half of the country’s GDP. 

There are also signs that Europeans in other countries who once fought to keep the eurozone intact at any cost now feel they could get along pretty well without Greece. After all, it has a population of only 11 million in a European Union of 500 million and it represents only about 1.4 percent of the union’s GDP.

In early January, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly quoted a source close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Berlin was “open” to a Greek exit, or Grexit, as the potential departure move is known.

Under pressure, Merkel was forced to backtrack, insisting unconvincingly that she wanted Greece to stay.  "I as German chancellor, and also the German government, have always pursued a policy of Greece staying in the euro zone,” she said at a joint press conference with British prime minister David Cameron.

This time around, Tsipras has promised the Greeks that Europe needs them and has no choice but to renegotiate Greece’s bailout debt conditions.   And Greeks like what they hear.  Days before the vote, he widened his lead by nearly 7 points ahead of current prime minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party, according to the last poll conducted by Greek SKAI television.  

Last time, Tsipras came out swinging against Europe and its currency.  This time he is picking his fights, and trying to build alliances across the southern tier of the continent.

Tsipras argues that in order to stay in the eurozone, Greece’s ruling party has negotiated a foolhardy payment schedule for its $378 million bailout debt that makes it impossible for the country to grow. The current repayment plan is 175 percent of the gross domestic product, and Tsipras wants a better deal, starting with his demand that Europe should simply erase most of the Greek debt.

“Hope is coming,” he says, repeating the Syriza campaign mantra.  “Five years of destruction and fear have led nowhere. Enough is enough.”

The lessons the young leader has learned since the last elections are apparent.  He has traded what amounted to fear-mongering in his last electoral campaign for consensus building, starting with a promise to some of his former naysayer European leaders.  Many of Europe’s struggling countries have launched their own versions of alternative leftist Syriza parties and Tsipras had made the rounds to Italy, Spain and Portugal in recent months.  

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In 2012, Tsipras gave wide ranging interviews to most people who cared enough to ask. This time around, he is writing op-eds in Europe’s largest newspapers to garner support not only for voting Greeks who have moved abroad, but to get Europe’s other austerity-suffering countries to back the debt reshuffling proposal with the idea that such a precedent could help them, too.

Writing in the Spanish daily El Pais, Tsipras tries to assure Spain that Greece can lead the way for all of Europe’s struggling economies. “From the darkness of austerity and of authoritarianism, into the light of democracy, of solidarity and of sustainable development,” he writes.  “For this reason, Greece is only the beginning. Within this year, Spain's turn is coming. The change begins from the South. The defeat of the political sponsors of austerity, foreclosures, of insecurity and fear, of corruption and the scandals has its launching point in our countries.”

Tsipras changed his message slightly in a hard hitting op-ed in the Financial Times a few days later, in which he says Europe must end austerity so as not to let “fear” kill democracy. “We have a duty to negotiate openly, honestly and as equals with our European partners. There is no sense in each side brandishing its weapons,” he writes.  “Unless the forces of progress and democracy change Europe, it will be Marine Le Pen and her far-right allies that change it for us.”

On January 14, Tsipras fielded questions with the hashtag #asktsipras in what turned out to be an ingenious town hall debate that garnered 32,000 tweets in the first few hours after it launched.  He accused the ruling class of “creating a breeding ground for scandals” and touched on everything from tax reform to foreign policy.  He tweeted, “We will not take part in NATO with a bowed head. We will not support military interventions. We will defend international legality.”

Tsipras has come a long way in just a few years, but not all of Europe is optimistic about a Tsipras-led Greece.  In an interview ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, which owns a lot of the Greek debt, quashed Tsipras’s debt renegotiation promise and said there is very little wiggle room when it comes to renegotiating debt.  “A debt is a debt and it is a contract,” she told The Irish Times.  “Defaulting, restructuring, changing the terms has consequences on the signature and the confidence in the signature.”

Speaking to RTLZ television ahead of the Davos meetings, Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who heads the influential Eurogroup of European ministers agreed.  “There’s no political support to write off Greek debt,” he said. 

And in Germany, there was that Der Spiegel report that the German government would rather have a Greek-free euro than open the way for a trend that would be costly to the richer nations.  “The German government considers a euro zone exit [by Greece] to be almost inevitable if opposition leader Alexis Tsipras leads the government after the election and abandons budgetary ­discipline and does not repay the country’s debts," the magazine reported.

Even at home in Greece, not everyone predicts that Tsipras will walk away with a clear mandate to run the country.  Alexis Papachelas, executive editor of Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper, cautions that the likely scenario of a second vote, like what happened in 2012 when the first ballot failed to produce a winner, could spell even bigger disaster for the country.

“Whichever party wins Sunday’s elections will be faced with a mountain of obligations. Tax revenues have plummeted and banks are under enormous pressure. Some inside Syriza like to believe they have a solution to every problem: Foreign lenders will give Greece ample time, the [European Central Bank] will provide unlimited liquidity to Greek banks ...,” he says. “Or so they think. For if you attempt to cross-check the information you will find very little in the form of a convincing answer. It’s like they are divorced from reality.”

Tsipras’s response is typically stirring: “The struggle of our peoples for change is the struggle of common sense versus ideological fanaticism,” he says.  “It is the struggle of dignity versus servitude,” he says.

But at the end of the day, somebody’s got to pay the bills.