NEWS

Alexis Tsipras: on the cusp of a second chance?

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The first radical-left leader to win office in the EU, Alexis Tsipras has steered crisis-hit Greece through seven chaotic months, but his U-turn deal with the country's creditors could prove a challenge to his bid for a comeback on Sunday.

"I think the goal of an absolute majority is totally achievable," the young politician predicted this week ahead of the vote on September 20. "SYRIZA will certainly be the biggest political party in the country."

Hands-down winner of general elections just seven months ago, the eloquent, charismatic leader with the boyish smile has lost a little of his edge and gained a little weight, after months of tireless effort to keep Greece afloat through the haggling with its EU and IMF creditors.

His voters are also tired. This will be the third time this year that Greeks have been called to polling stations, and the fifth since 2010, when revelations of the country's deep financial troubles first shook the planet.

Tsipras has a reputation for bold gambles, but in July he took one of his boldest yet by agreeing to the kind of tough economic reforms he had formerly rejected – along with a majority of Greeks – in exchange for a new 86-billion-euro ($97 billion) bailout.

Days later, 26 hardline SYRIZA MPs quit the party over the rescue deal, stripping Tsipras of his parliamentary majority. He stepped down as prime minister on August 20, calling new elections in the hope of returning to power in a stronger position.

Tsipras, Greece's youngest premier in 150 years, had swept to power with SYRIZA in January on an anti-austerity ticket, accusing the creditors of bringing the country to its knees through years of steep spending cuts.

The jury is still out on whether he capitulated to "blackmail" from the creditors in agreeing to the unpopular new bailout, or pulled his country back from the abyss.

A fan of Che Guevara and a hater of neck-ties, 41-year-old Tsipras forged his firebrand image early in life, protesting as a teenager for students' right to skip class if they want.

It was at high school too that he met Betty Baziana — the mother of his two boys — when both joined the Communist Youth. They have never married, despite the country's strong conservative traditions.

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

His early steps in politics were informed by hard-left positions as he took up with the loose coalition Synaspismos. He transformed it into SYRIZA, becoming its leader in 2008, aged just 34.

In Brussels this year, his erratic negotiating tactics infuriated creditors, who accused the Greeks of gambling the country's future by engaging in irresponsible brinkmanship — notably by calling a snap referendum on the bailout, urging citizens to reject the proposals.

Despite angering many Greeks by going on to ignore their 61.31 percent 'No vote, he is still regarded as competent.

And even after the broken promises, many voters believe he acts honestly and with their interests at heart — a break with past leaders they perceived as corrupt and beholden to powerful interests.

Most recent polls put Tsipras as best placed to govern. But in a marked change from several weeks ago when he was by far Greeces most popular politician, recent surveys published by the To Vima and Ethnos newspapers also indicate a rise in popularity for his conservative rival, Vangelis Meimarakis, leader of the New Democracy party.

Early this month To Vimas poll showed Meimarakis pulling ahead in the personal rankings, with 44.8 percent against 44 percent for Tsipras. Ethnos, however, still had Tsipras ahead on 45.8 percent against 44.3 percent.

[AFP]