Alexis Tsipras’s Conquest of Greece

In Longreads

The headquarters of the Greek political party that could bring down the European economy lies in a rundown neighborhood in central Athens. Not far away in one direction, a municipal soup kitchen feeds the city’s rising number of poor. Around another corner, a medical charity caters to illegal immigrants and the newly uninsured. The décor inside party headquarters is similarly modest.

Neon tubes shine down on worn blue linoleum. The walls are streaked with age. The only room in the building with a fresh coat of paint is the office of the party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, the 37-year-old radical leftist who has campaigned on renegotiating Greece’s debt deal. “Sometimes we have television cameras in there,” says Maria Kalyviotou, one of the chain-smoking young volunteers who man the party’s media operations. “That’s why we painted that room.”

The party’s very name, Syriza—The Coalition of the Radical Left—describes where its members see themselves on the political spectrum: on the fringes. Just outside Tsipras’s office hangs a photograph of a crowd celebrating the 1959 Cuban revolution; elsewhere, the hammer and sickle is a common sight. For two decades, Syriza and its far left predecessors had rarely polled above 5 percent in national elections—until May 6, when Syriza pulled off one of the most stunning results in modern Greek history. Riding widespread opposition to what many in the country see as an austerity program imposed by foreign governments, Syriza took 17 percent of the vote, making it the second-largest party, just two percentage points behind the conservative New Democracy Party.

After a week of tense negotiations, Tsipras refused to join his opponents in forming a government if that meant honoring the loan agreement Greece signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. That sent Syriza’s popularity even higher. With new elections scheduled for June 17, Syriza is running neck and neck with New Democracy. Some polls place its support as high as 30 percent, making Tsipras a contender to be Greece’s next prime minister. It’s as if the protesters of Occupy Wall Street suddenly had a shot not only at sweeping Congress but at taking the White House, too.

Tsipras tells voters he has no desire to bring back the drachma. But neither does he believe that staying in the euro requires the massive cuts in government spending to which Greece’s leaders have agreed as a condition of receiving international assistance over the last two years. The case that Tsipras and his colleagues make is that it’s those austerity measures—known in the country as “the memorandum”—that are the biggest threat to Greece’s membership in the euro. By crippling the economy, Tsipras contends, austerity has brought Greece closer to insolvency and default, heightening the risk of a financial catastrophe throughout the European periphery, as panicked markets bring down country after country. His anti-austerity message reflects public frustration across Europe, putting pressure on Germany, the euro system’s biggest economy, to issue collectively backed euro bonds or risk the unraveling of the common currency.

That a once-marginal Greek party such as Syriza could thrust itself onto the world scene is testament to the smarts and determination of its young leader. Having launched his career while a teenager, Tsipras possesses not just a deep knowledge of the Greek electorate but a populist’s knack for channeling mass emotion. “He’s not necessarily a great theorist or a great analytical thinker, or a great intellectual,” says Haris Konstantatos, a friend and fellow activist who has known him since university. “But he has the way of taking complex political or scientific discourses and making a coherent political slogan.”


On the Sunday after the newly elected Parliament officially failed to form a government, Syriza held a meeting of its 120-member central committee in a hotel ballroom not far from its headquarters. Since the elections, the party’s offices have been a buzz of policy planning, strategizing, and media interviews. “We’re trying to transform our basic political values into concrete numbers and proposals,” said Yiannis Bournos, a member of the central committee. In place of slogans like “democratic tax reform,” party officials are working to decide just how much to tax the very rich. “This is more than we expected,” said Vassilis Primikiris, another committee member. “It’s a lot of work.”

Few of the delegates wore suits or ties. The catering consisted of homemade slices of cake and a pot of coffee brewed on a table near the door. Tsipras arrived a little more than half an hour late, slipping past the waiting press with a couple of assistants. As he made his way to the front of the room, he greeted supporters with a kiss on each cheek, leaning in with a smile when he spoke, and contorting his thick lips in a frown of concentration when they answered.

In his speech, it was clear he sees himself as both an insurgent and the frontrunner. “Our opponents tried to put us on the edge of the political system,” he said. “But the voters chose to put us in the middle.” He paced his phrases carefully. “They try to say this election will be a referendum on the euro. We say it will be a referendum on the memorandum,” he said, referring to the debt deal. Only rarely did he raise his voice. But when he did, his ambitions were large. “We ask the people for a clear mandate to overturn the policies of misery,” he said. “Our target is a clear victory in the elections.” (Tsipras declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Tsipras entered politics at the age of 15, when a group of older students heard him speaking at a school assembly and, recognizing his talent, recruited him into the pro-Soviet communist party. “Greek politicians very often shout, scream, but he was never like that,” recalls Panos Papadopoulos, one of his recruiters. “He was always very calm, making his arguments, without being an exhibitionist.”

Two years later, the students of Athens revolted against unpopular education reforms and took over their schools, living and sleeping inside them for weeks. Tsipras quickly became one of the movement’s leaders, and when a 10-member committee was elected to negotiate with the minister of education, he was among them. “When you’re 16, 17, you prefer to fight,” says Matthaios Tsimitakis, another student who participated in the committee. “But he had this realism, that politics is among other things negotiation and finding the best compromise.” It was during this time that Tsipras met his girlfriend, Betty Baziana, with whom he still lives. They have one child and are expecting another in July.

Tsipras studied civil engineering at Athens Polytechnic, then the epicenter of student politics. Those who remember him from this time recall an able speaker, but one more interested in tactics than ideology. He led a group of students who mobilized to defend the university when violent protesters took to the streets outside. His political breakthrough came in 2006, when the former president of Syriza, Alekos Alavanos, endorsed him for a run for mayor of Athens. It was an effort to reach out to young Greeks, recalls Alavanos, an attempt “to cultivate the ground around the tree, so you can have new roots.” Young, vibrant, clearly from outside the circle of power and corruption, Tsipras represented a sharp break from the past. Running under the slogan “Let’s turn this city upside down,” he took 10.5 percent of the vote, an unheard-of showing for a far left candidate. Two years later, after a tussle for power, he replaced Alavanos as president of the party.

Critics in the media have sometimes called Syriza the party of the young, poor, and jobless. In a country where unemployment is 22 percent—and youth joblessness is well over twice that—that’s not a bad base to have. And yet the party’s appeal is far broader. The results of the May 6 elections, if anything, understate the magnitude of the protest vote. Some 19 percent of the electorate cast their ballots for small parties that failed to breach the 3 percent minimum needed to enter Parliament, while 35 percent didn’t vote at all.

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Polls show Greeks are pulled by two seemingly contradictory desires. Roughly two-thirds of the country opposes the bailout conditions. Yet nearly 80 percent say they want to stay in the euro. During the runup to the election, the dominant political parties—New Democracy and the socialist democratic party, Pasok—tied themselves in knots. Unable to distance themselves from the deals they had negotiated, they shied from defending them—other than to argue that membership in the euro depended on their enforcement. “They were running away from their own signatures,” says Gikas Hardouvelis, economic adviser to the previous prime minister.

Syriza argued the knots could be slipped, by insisting on fiscal transfers from Europe’s strong economies to the weak. The model is the U.S., where funds from the federal government flow automatically—through programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits—to states that are hit by disaster or recession.

“I don’t think any monetary union can work if there isn’t some kind of subsidy to poorer regions,” says Euclid Tsakalotos, a Syriza parliamentarian and an economist at the University of Athens. He says the cure to Greece’s depression is what Germany received after World War II, when its economy was in a shambles: a Marshall Plan to put it back on its feet, forgiveness for some of its debt, and a payment scheme that takes into account the state of the economy. “People say that we are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in,” says Tsakalotos. “OK, sure. But I think that Germany will find it hard to argue that in 1953 they were completely blameless.”

A growing number of Greeks have embraced Syriza’s message of defiance, including many who hardly resemble radical leftists. On the first Friday after it became clear that the country was headed to new elections, more than 100 mostly middle-aged voters attended a meeting in a senior center in the commuter neighborhood of Alimos, on the outskirts of Athens. Home to Greece’s formerly affluent—doctors, engineers, businessmen, and a large percentage of retirees—the area has seen business crumble. “We’ve lost almost 25 percent of our clientele,” says Stavros Papagiannopoulos, an accountant. “They’ve stopped working. Others have said, ‘We can’t pay you anymore.’” In 2009, Syriza received about 1,000 votes in the neighborhood. On May 6, the number jumped to 4,500.


To deliver on his promises, Tsipras will have to navigate the shoals of European diplomacy, learn to govern at home, avoid corruption, and keep the scattered strains of his coalition in check. Even those sympathetic to him question Syriza’s ability to manage that. “They used to be small,” says Nikos Xydakis, editor-in-chief of Kathimerini, the country’s largest daily. “And their mission is maybe too big for them.” Gerassimos Georgatos, head of European policy for the Democratic Left, a rival party that split from Syriza in 2010, says that Tsipras and those around him have historically been more interested in ideological purity than the compromises required for governing. “Deeply, they prefer to be in the opposition,” he says. “This is what they know how to do.”

There’s no question that Tsipras has been phenomenally lucky in terms of timing. Had his ascendency taken place even a month earlier, François Hollande would not yet have been elected president of France on a platform of renegotiating Europe’s fiscal compact, and the conventional wisdom on the solution to the continent’s crisis would not yet have swung from austerity toward growth. Yet Tsipras’s demand that other EU countries—namely Germany—renegotiate the bailout deal on Athens’s terms reflects a seeming indifference to the very real failures in Greece’s economy. While he and his supporters do discuss the public sector’s inefficiency, they are just as eager to talk about expanding it. Listen to Syriza’s experts, and you come away thinking that Greece’s biggest problem is a lack of investment. They rail against bureaucracy and corruption but have few concrete proposals on how to tackle them.

It’s too early to know how much of Tsipras’s stance on the debt deal is the smart positioning of a negotiator, and how much reflects deep-rooted ideology. Domestically, Tsipras has redefined the debate about austerity: Instead of Greeks having to choose between leaving the EU or buckling to its demands, the members of the monetary union should discuss how to divide the necessary sacrifices between the impoverished peripheral countries and Europe’s larger economies. Yet even if that argument helps catapult Tsipras to power in the June 17 election, success afterward will require him to win over his partners abroad. Will he be able to—or even want to—deliver the compromises that a deal with countries such as Finland and Germany would likely demand? Tsipras has never given any indication that he has a Plan B.

On May 24, Tsipras’s first campaign appearance in the new electoral season, his strengths and weaknesses were on full display. He had just returned from a trip to Paris and Berlin, during which he had been told that the last time the far left had gotten so much attention in France was when Fidel Castro came to visit. He appeared just before sundown at a small plaza in front of an Orthodox church west of the Acropolis. Dressed in jeans and a striped blue-and-white shirt, he pushed through the crowd to a table with a microphone.

“The election isn’t between Syriza and the other parties,” he said. “It’s between hope and fear. It’s between the powers of yesterday that ruined Greece and our power that wants to make a step towards a better future. It’s between the power of corruption and the power of the poor.”

When Tsipras finished speaking, he took questions. One woman sought his views about renewable energy. A student inquired what he would do to help the youth. A man asked how he would clean up the public sector. His answers were broad, not specific. He used them to launch attacks against his opponents, to promise a future in which nobody went hungry, to repeat his assertion that the real problem with the Greek economy lay outside its borders. He had spent much of the previous week framing his criticisms of the debt deal as a hand extended toward the rest of the union. As the sun set in the plaza, he showed that the hand could also be a fist. “We ask you to give power to Syriza in order to be powerful as Greece,” he said. And then, a few sentences later: “We’re going to have the power to say, if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”

First published in Bloomberg Businessweek.


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Stephan Faris
Stephan Faris is Enterprise Editor at the European edition of Politico. Prior to that, he was a contributor to Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic. He has lived in and written from Beijing, Nairobi, Istanbul, Lagos, and Rome and covered stories across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Liberia. His book, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese.