published at The Telegraph
Described as the ‘Greek Che Guevara’, the country’s new anti-austerity PM has come a long way since his motorbike-riding Communist days
By Nick Squires, Athens7:15AM GMT 26 Jan 2015
Alexis Tsipras, whose Syriza party won the Greek general election for the first time in its history, is to become the country’s first radical left-wing prime minister, and the youngest in over 150 years.
He brings to the job a burning passion to dump the austerity policies that his party says have brought a “humanitarian crisis” to Greece.
“Greece is turning a page, leaving behind disastrous austerity… and five years of humiliation,” Tsipras told a jubilant crowd of supporters in central Athens after his party won a clear victory.
With over 60 per cent of ballots accounted for, Syriza had over 36 per cent of the vote.
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That may not be enough to secure the 151 seats required for an outright majority in the 300-seat parliament, meaning Syriza will likely need to find a coalition partner.
Tsipras, who in the last election in 2012 was just 170,000 votes short of victory, has come a long way from his days as a Communist youth activist.
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 who admires Che Guevara – naming his second son Orpheus Ernesto – has subtly modified his image as power and responsibility beckoned.
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 attacked.
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 over the fatal shooting of a teenage boy by a policeman.
Syriza gave the rioters political backing but the move backfired and in the next election the party received just 4.6 per cent 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.
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 under-25s is around 50 per cent.
In three years, Syriza has increased its support five-fold.
The outgoing conservatives of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras have argued that a Syriza government 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 pledges 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