ATHENS — For the past eight years, Greece’s leaders have had impressive degrees from top world universities, Amherst, Harvard and the London School of Economics among them. They have left the country in quite a pickle, and the question now is whether a 37-year-old, Greek-educated civil engineer can do any better.
Alexis Tsipras comes from a grand tradition in Greece’s boisterous democracy, a strident left-winger who cut his teeth in student politics and, like his predecessors in the 1970s who helped overthrow a military junta, is rattling the establishment. His student movement was called “The Earthquake,” and that’s what many worry will be felt if he becomes prime minister in a Sunday election that could determine whether Greece remains in the euro zone – or one of Europe’s central projects begins to unravel.
Greeks will have to wrestle with a crucial dilemma when they go to the polls for the second time in as many months on June 17 to elect a new government.
Tsipras has pledged to discard the austerity program the Greek government agreed to in return for international loans. Syriza party leaders say he will effectively nationalize the country’s banks. He insists that the leverage is on Greece’s side — that in the end the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde will cave and give the recession-plagued country more time and more money rather than risk a euro exit.
If there’s any doubt about the stakes, the world’s central banks are girding for the worst.
“On Sunday, the old world will die,” Tsipras said at an Athens rally Thursday, his brow knitted and sweaty on a sultry Greek night. Invoking what has become Greece’s modern version of a mythic beast — the “memorandum” that lays out the strict conditions for the country’s bailout loans — he made clear what will happen if Syriza wins enough parliamentary seats to form a government.
“This will be a historic change for Greece and Europe. . . . The memorandum is coming to an end.”
That sort of epochal language is driving Syriza’s popularity in a country weary of a five-year recession that only seems to deepen, and of a pile of debt that has grown larger in the hands of bailout lenders such as the IMF, the European Central Bank and other European nations. Right now Greece is obliged to pay about $15 billion a year in interest alone, money those institutions sequester from each chunk of Greece’s emergency loans — kind of like a credit-card company adding monthly payments to the balance of a bill.
Tsipras has captured a sense of indignity over the situation and reflected it in a youthful package. Square-shouldered while standing on a stage at Athens’ Omonoia Square in a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, tie discarded and collar unbuttoned, he called out by name the politicians he hopes the country will reject — all of them a generation older, professorial in demeanor, sometimes more comfortable speaking in English than Greek.
At the National Technical University of Athens, where Tsipras studied how to build roads and fire up a crowd, former teachers remember a strong-willed student. The campus outside the city center is speckled with revolutionary graffiti, while student opinion covers the spectrum from hard-left anti-capitalist to hard-right anti-immigrant.