It has been only two weeks since Alexis Tsipras was thrust into the international political limelight after leading the Coalition of the Radical Left-SYRIZA party to a surprising second place in Greece’s May 6 election and major media outlets in Europe and the United States have been hosting a slew of articles about him, in an attempt to piece together a coherent narrative.
This post is also available in French on Okeanews.
The 38-year-old leftist party leader is being portrayed as a rising political star and gifted public speaker, a youthful charmer, who shuns neck ties and calls Europe’s bluff on austerity being the on austerity being the only path for Greece if it intends to remain in the Eurozone. At the same time, Tsipras is being criticized for what is seen as an agenda of inadequate proposals for a solution to the Greek crisis, with some outlets scoffing at Tsipras’ recent meetings with political allies in Paris and Berlin, aimed at forming a united anti-austerity front.
The general consensus so far seems to be that Tsipras is capable of playing an active role in shifting the tide of the European crisis should he take the lead in Greece’s upcoming repeat election on June 17. The analysis however, mostly draws on what is seen as Tsipras’ charismatic and defiant personality, his presumed enjoyment at gaming the European political system and his current appeal to a Greek public disillusioned with the country’s waning two-party system and exhausted by prolonged austerity, unemployment and social disintegration.
What isn’t addressed sufficiently is the historic background and context of Tsipras’ rise in the political scene of Greece and the overall influence and tradition of activism within the Greek left. SYRIZA is hardly a one-man show starring a political wunderkind. Several international articles frame SYRIZA as a coalition of small leftist parties, which is only partly accurate and makes the party come across as a last minute crisis-motivated patch-up of formerly stranded independent forces. In fact, SYRIZA has an almost 20 year history in the political scene of Greece and represents the strongest and most recent evolutionary step of a pro-European leftist fraction in Greek parliamentary politics, which resulted from a split with KKE, the anti-EU and anti-euro communist party.
In that sense, Tsipras may be a fan of Chavez and have Che Guevara pictures and ‘revolution’ signs posted in his office, as almost every international outlet has informed its readership, but he essentially heads a party that has taken a clear pro-euro and pro-EU stance since its inception. In fact, SYRIZA continues to insist that Europe needs fiscal as well as political union.
Moreover, SYRIZA’s rise in the May 6 elections comes at the tail end of a long period of organized anti-austerity activism in Greece, which has included apart from strikes, protests and civil disobedience, several examples of community organizing and solidarity groups aimed at mobilizing citizens against an ongoing wave of cuts and working class taxation. International media have repeatedly focused their attention on images of violence and anarchy on Greece’s streets but have not sufficiently addressed this aspect of the Greek people’s reaction to the crisis. Tsipras’ anti-austerity views can only be understood in this wider context, which challenges the notion that he is a populist exploiting aimless mass discontent. It is also worth noting that although SYRIZA leadership was supportive of the protest and anti-austerity movement of the past two years, the party was mostly absent organizationally from major demonstrations even though individual members, including some prominent ones, were present.
Finally, criticism was leveled at Tsipras over his attempt to build alliances with other European anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal forces, following the elections. Some critics readily dismissed his meetings with leftist groups in Paris and Berlin as a waste of time. The implication was that the politicians Tsipras chose to meet with, like France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are not regulars at EU summits. It’s contradictory however, to point the finger at Tsipras for not getting in touch with the decision makers currently holding the Eurozone’s policy reins, while simultaneously acknowledging -as many of these same outlets have done- that their decisions have failed to resolve the crisis in the European periphery.
For the time being, Tsipras doesn’t offer a clear solution to the financial crisis but that shouldn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that he is a political gambler. Rather, it may be a sign that he is a politician more than anything, one that refuses to prescribe a financial pill without issuing a heavy dose of radical and extensive political change.
Below is a sample of press on Tsipras:
The New York Times published a lengthy profile calling Tsipras a “cool strategist playing a game of brinkmanship” and a “high-stakes game of chicken” with Europe’s leaders and particularly with Angela Merkel. The article even quotes Tsipras saying he likes to play poker.
While Europe’s leaders “have scrambled to put together contingency plans in case Greece exits the euro zone,” the Times wrote, “Mr. Tsipras has calmly stated his case and let the rest of Europe sweat about the possibly disastrous ramifications if it does.”
As for Tsipras’ European tour, the New York Times wrote in a separate piece that in Paris, he only managed to meet with sympathizers like leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, while in Berlin he was more warmly received.
In an interview with Reuters, Tsipras is described as a man of “boyish good looks” and a “combative rhetoric that has seduced disaffected Greek youth and alarmed Brussels and Berlin.”
“Tsipras has humiliated the socialist and conservative parties,” adds Reuters “and is favored by jobless young people who blame “middle aged political bosses for sacrificing their future to protect an older generation’s perks.’”
The article describes Tsipras’ “shopworn office” at the SYRIZA headquarters in a “slightly seedy neighborhood of central Athens” and mentions a faded poster of Che Guevara that hangs on a wall behind a broken pane of glass.
The article writes that Tsipras has adopted a “relaxed manner” and “chooses to cross Athens by motorbike rather than the limos favoured by other Greek political leaders,” and who “prefers open-necked shirts to a suit and tie.”
The BBC quotes people close to Tsipras describing him as charismatic, well-liked, calm and passionate. The article charts Tsipras’rise in Greek politics from his early years as a high-school student actively protesting unpopular educational reforms to his brief stint in the youth section of the communist party all the way to his assent in 2008 at the top of the SYRIZA party to become, at 33, the youngest ever party leader in Greece.
Also quoted are critics of Tsipras. “Some suggest he has not fully explained how his opposition to the EU’s austerity plans can be squared with his support for the euro and for continuing Greece’s EU membership” writes the BBC, further quoting a member of the free-marketeer Drassi party, who calls Tsipras a “populist” and an academic who brings up the issue of Tsipras’ alleged support of violent demonstrators, which Tsipras has repeatedly denied.
Bloomberg published a scathing opinion piece about Tsipras calling on Greek voters to “look beyond Syriza’s dangerous lies” that Greece can remain within the euro area without upholding its “commitments” to EU leaders. These “commitments” refer to the terms of a memorandum signed by the major pro-austerity parties, which have brought to the country EU and IMF fiscal supervision, as well as austerity measures and privatizations slated to last for several years.
Tsipras is personally labeled “dangerous,” a man either “reckless” or “cynical” about Greece’s negotiating power with its EU partners. Bloomberg also calls Tsipras a former “marginal career radical” now “willing to gamble with the future of Greece and that of an entire continent” by insisting that his country cannot uphold the memorandum terms. A re-thinking of austerity “would be fine, except that what’s being discussed in Europe has nothing to do with what he’s selling to Greek voters,” the article opines. If Greeks believe Tsipras “and he attracts enough votes in elections on June 17 to follow through with his threats, then his country, Europe and the global economy will live for years with the consequences.”
The writer urges Europe’s politicians “across the political spectrum” to draw a line between theirs and SYRIZA’s objections to austerity: “They need to say, repeatedly, that they want to help Greece, but they cannot, and it cannot remain in the euro, if its leaders simply abandon the commitments the country signed.”
Britain’s The Telegraph writes that although Tsipras is a “popular critic of the status quo” and a “skilled communicator,” he has given “little clue as to how he would rule.”
“He successfully tapped into a deep vein of outrage, and for two years, rarely pulled his punches in parliament as he criticized the austerity reforms demanded by international institutions and creditors,” the article writes and adds: “He accused the government of denying reality, argued they were dogmatically adhering to a failed austerity recipe that had already exacerbated a biting recession that has cost thousands of jobs.”
Tsipras gave an exclusive interview in Britain’s The Guardian, where he is quoted as saying that, “Greece is in danger of a humanitarian crisis.” A second piece in The Guardian, a profile, states that with “his good looks, raven black hair and propensity for rousing oratory, Tsipras comes across more as a pin-up (which is how many in Greece see him) than a saviour, which is how a great deal of others see him.”
The article includes a quote by the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, -who met with Tsipras prior to the Guardian interview- saying the SYRIZA leader “is not as dangerous as he appears on TV, but he does have some risky positions.”
The Guardian published a third piece on Tsipras, that focused on his visits to France and Germany. Writer Ian Traynor claims that Tsipras “might even hold Europe’s future in his hands” and concluded that although his European appearances amount “to canny campaigning” he is “talking to the wrong people.”
The German newspaper Der Spiegel chided Tsipras for not offering an alternative to austerity. “He argues that the Europeans are only bluffing -- and he promises that they will continue to help, even if the Greeks no longer service their debts. He says: Elect me and all this misery will come to an end.”
Spiegel quotes Tsipras saying that Angela Merkel is treating Greece “like a protectorate.” A politician, Spiegel adds, “doesn’t have to be a demagogic genius to harness the enormous discontent among the population, as Tsipras is currently doing.”
The French Le Figaro, a traditionally conservative newspaper, calls Tsipras “the incarnation of a revival of the left.”
“After having transformed the legislative campaign in a referendum against austerity, Alexis Tsipras continues to brandish, sword in hand, the most sensible social themes to Greeks, exhausted by the two-year austerity,” the article adds.
Le Figaro also makes extensive mention of SYRIZA’s historic member and Greek Nazi resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, “’an emblematic personality” who, as the article points out once won the title of the “premiere resistance fighter of Europe” by General De Gaulle. The article echoes concerns on behalf of SYRIZA activists who fear that Tsipras will deviate from Glezos’ clear left philosophy and become “another Andreas Papandreou,” the PASOK founder who in his early days occupied Tsipras’s place at the left-center of the Greek political scene.