Thursday 12 December 2019

George Georgiopoulos: Former student radical itches to teach EU lesson

It's fair to say that "sexy" is not an adjective used to describe most Greek politicians. When Alexis Tsipras, the 37-year-old ex-student radical poised to become the most powerful man in Greece, sat with no necktie across the negotiating table from middle-aged party bosses, it was clear politics in Athens were about to change.

A motorcycle-riding ex-Communist with a chiselled chin, thick black hair, smouldering eyes and attractive girlfriend, Mr Tsipras has seduced the public with a promise to give them what European leaders say is impossible: keeping Greece in the euro currency while tearing up the bailout that staved off bankruptcy.

To his foes -- who include essentially the entire Greek political establishment and the collective leadership of the European Union -- he is a reckless charmer, dragging his country to certain collapse on the false promise of easy solutions.

After only three years in parliament, and with no background in finance or law, they say the leader of the leftist Syriza party would be far out of his depth around a table with the European Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

But to his supporters -- whose number now reaches far beyond the confines of the radical left -- he is a saviour, the only leader bold enough to seize power from the inept and crooked old men who squandered the future of Greek youth.

The economic crisis that has crushed Greece over the last five years has badly hurt its young people, more than half of whom are now unemployed.

They have found their champion in Mr Tsipras and are now poised to hand him victory if Greece goes to new elections next month.

With more to gain than any other politician from a repeat of the inconclusive election last week, he has refused to join a grand coalition with the socialists and conservatives he blames for driving Greece into poverty.

Young Greeks sound almost giddy. A slogan batted around on the internet takes advantage of the rhyme: "Come on Alexi for a Greece that's sexy."

Alongside the policy proposals on his Facebook page -- where his portrait with gelled hair, black shirt and pop star scowl practically burns through the screen -- are a riot of hearts, kisses and smiley faces posted by mostly female fans.

"I would marry you in a sec!!" one fan posted.

The romance is more than skin deep. "I like him because he's part of our generation. My generation is the one that's really suffering," said Haroula Romanos, a 21-year-old maths student.

"We have no future and I really believe he can change that. That he's good looking I'm afraid will turn against him because they won't take him seriously. It's a pity because he's the only one with ideas. He has guts."

The idea of a handsome young radical also appeals to people old enough to be Romanos's grandparents in a country still haunted by the legends of the struggle against the 1967-1974 dictatorship.

"My husband tells me 'are you crazy?' But why not vote for him? He's a good-looking guy, he's young and the country needs young people. It seems he cares about the country and I think he would work hard," said retired teacher Lia Manousaki (65).

Breaking into laughter, she added: "On the other hand, he is so young he could be my son, so I'm not sure."

Those close to him insist Mr Tsipras is more than just a pretty face. A civil engineer by training, he is described as a methodical planner and perfectionist whose rise is due more to strategy and hard work than good looks and good luck.

Political analysts say he could not have risen so far without careful planning. While other parties have vacillated over how to save Greece and keep the euro, Mr Tsipras has never wavered from the position that the solution is within reach if Athens reverses the harsh austerity demanded by Brussels.

"Tsipras and his party capitalised in the best way on society's view of the bailout and austerity. They read it well and were rightly placed. All other party views were muddled," said pollster Costas Panagopoulos.

Mr Tsipras would withdraw from NATO and close its bases, halt repayment of the national debt, reverse privatisations, seize banks, eliminate sales tax and impose a 75pc tax on the rich.

First and foremost, he would tear up the ¿130bn bailout that calls for Greece to radically scale back public sector pensions and wages in return for loans to keep the country afloat.

EU leaders say that would mean the end of funding, certain bankruptcy and Greece's ejection from the euro, which nearly 80pc of Greeks want to keep.

Syriza officials brush off the threats, saying the EU cannot pull the plug on Greece because of the damage it would do to the rest of the currency zone. But even some of Mr Tsipras's closest allies are wary of making promises to Greeks that cannot be kept.

Alekos Alavanosf, the veteran leftist who picked Mr Tsipras as his successor as Syriza leader, said the party needs to admit to voters that rejecting the bailout probably means leaving the single currency.

"The left must warn the people responsibly. Not only by telling them that the road away from the bailout is also the road that leads to exiting the euro, but also that it will be particularly painful, but with prospects," he wrote recently.

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