Anger may push Greek PM Alexis Tsipras out of office, but not off the political stage

Win or lose, his supporters believe, Mr Alexis Tsipras is likely to remain the man of the progressive future in Greece.
Win or lose, his supporters believe, Mr Alexis Tsipras is likely to remain the man of the progressive future in Greece.PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (NYTIMES) - With elections approaching on Sunday (July 7), Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has tried his best to remind frustrated Greeks how bad things were and how much better they had become during his four years in power.

Greece had averted bankruptcy and last year finally exited its bailout of more than €300 billion (S$458 billion). Unemployment was down. Growth was up. Investors were returning. Greece now has a solid alliance with the United States, business with China and more sway in the European Union.

"We want the Greek people to vote not with their anger but with their minds," Mr Tsipras said at a campaign event at a fruit and vegetable market in Athens. "We remember what we went through."

Despite all that, many Greeks are hurting and angry after a decade of austerity, and they blame him, even if his supporters say that he led them much of the way through the economic wilderness. Polls suggest a stinging defeat for Mr Tsipras in the snap elections he called after his drubbing in May's elections for the European Parliament.

The centre-right New Democracy party, led by Mr Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the scion of a storied Greek political family, seemed poised to win after attracting middle-class support with the promise of tax cuts and new prosperity.

Yet the lack of commotion about Mr Tsipras' likely defeat is itself a testament to Greece's new normalcy. No matter who wins on Sunday, the future direction of the country - relatively stable, if still recovering, and relatively comfortably ensconced in the European Union - is unlikely to change.

"National elections are very important," said Mr Trifonas Alexiadis, a former deputy finance minister. "But it's another battle. It's not the war."

The possibility of such anti-climactic change in Greece is a measure of Mr Tsipras' personal transformation from left-wing firebrand to experienced statesman. Win or lose, his supporters believe, Mr Tsipras is likely to remain the man of the progressive future in Greece.

If anything, even in their probable defeat, Mr Tsipras' backers see an opportunity for him to evolve into something more.

Now 44 and eminently comfortable with the trappings of power, Mr Tsipras is playing the long game. Since exiting the bailout, he has focused on his international status, improving his English and attending all the right conferences.

In June, Mr Tsipras rallied the European Union to denounce Turkey's drilling off Cyprus. He flexed his power - and took some revenge - by leading southern European governments in blocking a conservative candidate for European Union commissioner who hailed from austerity-imposing Germany.

Last year, he struck a historic, if politically unpopular, deal settling a long dispute with North Macedonia.

And no less a figure than Pope Francis has said that, when it came to migrants, the prime minister's statement that human rights come before accords "deserves the Nobel Prize."

"He knows that he is going to be on the political stage for many years ahead," said Foreign Minister George Katrougalos, who called Mr Tsipras "the best Greek politician I have ever met". The question, then, is not so much what will happen to Mr Tsipras but to the party he leads.

Syriza, a Greek acronym for The Coalition of the Radical Left, which included communists, assorted leftists and anarchist sympathisers, rose in 2012 as Greece's Socialist political establishment collapsed under the terms of the loan agreements Greece signed with its foreign creditors.

By the time Mr Tsipras took power in 2015, he had become more moderate than many elements of his party. Nevertheless, he shook up Europe by calling a referendum on whether or not to adhere to the bailout terms offered by Greece's international creditors.

Sixty-one per cent of Greeks voted against the bailout, but days later Mr Tsipras signed on anyway.

"He was and is a traitor," said Ms Zoe Konstantopoulou, Tsipras' former lawyer and a once popular Syriza politician who served as the president of Greece's Parliament.

She accused him of betraying his party and Greek voters and of being a "perfect puppet" of creditors by signing on to the austerity measures.

Dozens of Syriza members quit and Mr Tsipras dissolved Parliament and forced new elections. With the help of moderates, he won and replaced dissenters like Ms Konstantopoulou, now marginalised and the leader of a small party, with loyalists who gave him firm control of his party.

Four years later, he has sought to expand his support further towards the centre. This year, he invited progressives to join Syriza in what he called the Alliance of Progressives.

Mr Angelos Tolkas, who came from the once-powerful Socialist party, heeded the call. He said a potential defeat would allow Mr Tsipras to concentrate on enlarging the centre-left tent.

"If you are outside of government you can build your party," said Mr Tolkas, now deputy minister for migration policy. "You can reform it. You can homogenise it."

Many moderates on the left like Mr Tsipras, but they were still wary of Syriza, said Mr Thanos Moraitis, another former Socialist who joined Mr Tsipras' government as the deputy minister of infrastructure and transport this year.

"It's in the hands of Alexis Tsipras, if he wants to make a different party in the centre," he said. ''I think he does." He suggested that the "Progressive Alliance" could be a "first step" in the changing of Syriza's name.

But the power centres within Syriza reject such a possibility.

Mr Nikkos Pappas is Mr Tsipras' right-hand man. He has known him since before Mr Tsipras sported a ponytail and is widely seen as his enforcer.

"We're not changing the name," he said, though he said Mr Tsipris was "100 per cent" going to broaden Syriza into a pro-European centre-left force. More important than the name of the party, he said, was its leader.

"There are parties in search of a leader and leaders in search of a party," he said. "He's the second one." Another power player within the party, Labor Minister Effie Achtsioglou, 34, is a rising star sometimes mentioned as a potential successor to Mr Tsipras.

Ms Achtsioglou said the real question Syriza had to confront after the election was whether Greek progressives want a "more radical perspective or the more moderate perspective." She argued that the party needed to enhance its radical, or liberal, characteristics and work more closely with unions and ecological movements.

Still, she said the more radical elements of Syriza would never abandon Mr Tsipras "because Tsipras is Syriza," she said, expressing absolute loyalty to him.

As Mr Tsipras finished his event at the Athens vegetable market, kissing a baby and receiving a rose, his allies talked about how respected he had become on the international stage.

Mr Kostas Douzinas, Syriza's chairman of the foreign relations committee in Parliament, said foreign diplomats from the countries Mr Tsipras once petrified now secretly hoped he would stick around.

Mr Tsipras clearly wants the same thing.

In the weeks leading up to the European parliamentary elections in May, Mr Douzinas said he had asked Mr Tsipras how he managed to campaign so tirelessly around the country.

"This is my big calling," Mr Tsipras said, according to Mr Douzinas. "I have to fulfill it."