Greece's brash young kingmaker on the left

2012-05-07 13:00

Athens - Greece's youngest leader, brash and self-assured Alexis Tsipras on Sunday saw his anti-austerity campaign vindicated as his leftist Syriza party more than tripled its strength in national elections.

With over half of polling stations accounted for on Sunday, Syriza was cruising to become the country's second party, riding a wave of anger towards two years of crushing austerity that has left Greece adrift in a deep recession.

"The time of the Left has come," hundreds of party supporters chanted as they rushed to celebrate at the Propylaia, a central Athens square where anti-government leftist protests are traditionally launched.

Previously Greece's fifth largest party, from Monday this loosely-knit coalition of left-wing groups could be calling the shots as the country embarks on a tortuous course to form a new government and complete painful economic reforms.

If the New Democracy conservatives who topped Sunday's poll are unable to form a government within three days after receiving a mandate from head of state President Carolos Papoulias, the task will fall to Syriza.

As far as 37-year-old Tsipras is concerned, the country is heading in the wrong direction and ought to ditch the recovery blueprint mandated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Deep vein of outrage

The former Communist youth activist had a shaky start when he took over the party in 2008, backing rioting youths who vandalised Athens and other cities in retaliation for the fatal shooting of a teenage boy by a police patrolman.

But his attacks on the unpopular EU-IMF recovery plan, known here as the 'memorandum', tapped into a deep vein of outrage here.

For two years, Tsipras rarely pulled his punches in parliament as he criticised the reforms demanded by the EU and the IMF in return for bankruptcy-saving loans.

He accused the government of denying reality, argued they were dogmatically adhering to a failed austerity recipe that had already exacerbated a biting recession that has cost thousands of jobs.

"I've lost count how many times you've revised your forecasts," Tsipras told ministers during a heated parliamentary debate on the budget in December, pointing to previous estimates of growth in 2012 that had proved inaccurate.

Two months later, in response to pressure from Greece's international creditors for swifter privatisations and more civil service layoffs, he warned: "Soon they will tell us to abolish democracy in return for new loans."

Rights defender

Tsipras was born in 1974, a fateful year for Greece which marked the collapse of a seven-year army dictatorship that mercilessly persecuted leftists and Communists, culminating in a bloody crackdown against a student uprising.

With his strong anti-austerity stance, Tsipras has made few friends in Germany, Europe's paymaster.

Syriza in March sued Germany's Bild newspaper for €1m after it allegedly portrayed Tsipras as a "half-criminal" who "openly supports violent anarchists".

"Will these radicals soon be governing Greece?", the newspaper had wondered at the time.

Syriza is also a staunch defender of the rights of undocumented migrants and refugees, which puts him on a collision course with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party which also managed to secure parliamentary seats on Sunday.

An engineer by training, Tsipras is married and has a son. His wife is reportedly pregnant with their second child.