Politics Member States

Profile: Is Alexis Tsirpas a danger for Europe?

25 May 2012
Der Freitag Berlin

Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras in Athens, May 24, 2012.
Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras in Athens, May 24, 2012.

The leader of Greece’s leftist alliance SYRIZA is the new bright hope of Greek politics. Steering a course between pragmatism and the rhetoric of class warfare, he has unsettled Berlin, and not just those who back Angela Merkel's austerity policies.

Alexis Tsirpas’s visit to Berlin this Tuesday, fresh from Paris, can be seen as a show of his new self-confidence. Invited by the Left Party, he is out to recruit followers for his ideas in the country that has been by far the most unswerving on the austerity policy.

The CDU hastily signalled in advance that there was no need to meet the rising star of the left. The SPD wavered. It was enough to get Tsipras the attention he wants. As he approaches the Reichstag cameras he flashes a broad smile, one that seems a little too big for everyday life but one that comes across very engagingly on the screen.

Tsipras utters polite thanks for the reception. He speaks of solidarity among the German and Greek peoples and urges them not to allow themselves to get played off against each other. “We are fighting this fight for the German workers too.”

If he wins office, the first thing he will do is stop the debt payments and declare the laboriously negotiated austerity package null and void: that’s Tsipras' promise to the Greek voters. He will also, he has declared, write off much of the Greek debt entirely and nationalise the banks. For his critics, he’s a left-wing populist. For the proponents of austerity, that makes Alexis Tsipras the “most dangerous man in Europe”.

The right place at the right time

In Greece, though, where a large part of the population has been pushed to the limits of their endurance by the crisis, he is hailed as a hero. Tsipras is good-looking, and the voters love his youthful charm and the straightforward declarations. He is what the Greeks call a “Pallikari”, a brave boy who bends his knee to no authority.

Born in 1974 in Athens, Tsirpas was already attracting notice at the age of 17 by organising student protests. Not only was he professionally massaging the media, he was also negotiating hard-headedly with the Minister of Education.

In a photograph from his student days Tsipras sits on a hill, shoulder-length hair blowing forward over his face, and laughs into the camera with the unshakeable optimism of a young man who is firmly convinced that the world is just waiting to be saved by him.

With the help of the political pull of his father, Alekos Alavanos, his political career moved ahead fast. In 2006 he was elected to Athen’s City Council, where he made a name as a politician for the people. Following his election as Syriza party leader in 2008, he moved up into parliament in 2009.

Tsipras’ rise is explained in no small part by the fact that he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Last year, when the Greeks had not yet been so demoralised by austerity, Tsipras’ radical demands still alarmed many voters. But that’s not the only thing that has changed. The political climate in Europe as a whole has shifted – and it’s become particularly visible in François Hollande's victory in France.

Pleads for understanding

In an interview he gave before leaving for Berlin, Tsipras stated that Merkel has become “extremely isolated” by her austerity policies in Europe. In the New York Times he advised her to follow the example of the “expansionist approach” of America. It’s part of a broad international media campaign that is helping Tsipras prepare for possible re-negotiations.

After his brief appearance in the German Left Party’s parliamentary group, the agenda skips briskly forward. Party leader Klaus Ernst and parliamentary leader Gysi want to introduce their guest to the capital’s press; the desire of the faltering German left to scoop up a little of his glamour is palpable. Posed against the blue wall at the National Press conference, Ernst and Gysi position Tsipras between them. It looks a little like a group of football club managers announcing the signing of a new superstar. “I am not a hero,” Tsipras begins humbly. “My party is not the hero either. The hero is the Greek people.”

The impact of the austerity package has been a disaster, and a catastrophe in Europe must be averted. “We’re asking for the solidarity of the peoples of France and Germany,” he says. For him, it’s not about asking for more money, but arguing for a different distribution.

What would become of the reforms in Greece, then, if he were to win office? He wants to make the tax system fairer and generate higher revenues.

Tsipras pleads for understanding; referring to the Germans as “big brothers”, he invites them to visit Greece on their summer vacations – but on the core issues he stands his ground: no paying back the Greek debt under the current conditions. After nearly an hour the question period ends, and Tsipras hurries with Gysi to the limousine waiting at the door. Time is short:  Sigmar Gabriel (SPD party leader) has just declared his readiness to meet.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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