Alexis Tsipras

They were the biggest student protests since the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising that helped bring down Greece’s military dictatorship. Angry at education reforms proposed in late 1990 by Greece’s centre-right government that would have slashed benefits such as free textbooks, students occupied schools across the country. More than 90 per cent of academic institutions were taken over.

To co-ordinate demands, student leaders from all over Athens came to Ampelokipoi high school. At the front of the assembly stood the school’s own delegate, a 16-year-old member of the local Communist youth, Alexis Tsipras.

Many of the students, particularly on the leftist fringes, were pushing for a radical overhaul of the country’s education system. “We didn’t want exams, we didn’t want grades, we wanted an open school,” recalls Matthaios Tsimitakis, an Athens journalist who was one of the student leaders at the assembly.

But not Mr Tsipras. Despite his leftist credentials, Mr Tsipras urged only one demand: withdraw the reforms. Although the protests would grow tense — a teacher was killed in clashes between rival groups in January 1991 — Mr Tsipras, who became one of the main negotiators with the government, held his line. And, three months after they were proposed, the government sacked its education minister and withdrew the reforms. The protests ended.

Twenty-five years later, Mr Tsipras, now 40, is on the verge of becoming Greece’s prime minister as leader of Syriza, the radical leftist party poised to win Sunday’s parliamentary election. If it emerges victorious, Syriza would become the first of the burgeoning populist parties rocking the eurozone to come to power in a national capital since the debt crisis first hit the EU’s common currency in 2010.

Those who have worked closely with Mr Tsipras say the qualities he showed during that 1990 political baptism — preternatural maturity, an ability to co-opt and diffuse the demands from more radical rivals, a single-minded focus on the end goal — are the same that have marked every step of his stunning rise.

“What he says is: even if you have the greatest agenda, and the smartest programme, if you’re not powerful enough to form a majority to implement it, it only stays on paper,” says Nikos Pappas, Mr Tsipras’ chief of staff.

But those same tendencies have led critics to argue that rather than the idealistic hero of struggling Greeks he is presenting to voters, Mr Tsipras is really a far more cynical and calculating operative, using his charisma and boyish good looks to present a friendly face as he elbows his way to the top.

“I think he’s very ambitious,” says one former member of the party’s central committee who broke with the group during Mr Tsipras’s rise. “That’s the only thing motivating him. He’d like very much to be the prime minister.”

Even Mr Tsipras’s predecessor as Syriza chief, Alekos Alavanos, questions whether the party’s rhetoric matches its intentions. “It has radical left origins, but Syriza now is a moderate party,” says Mr Alavanos, credited by many with orchestrating Mr Tsipras’s rise.

Mr Tsipras, only half-jokingly, acknowledges that some within Syriza view him as a “serial killer”, having ruthlessly disposed of leaders from the party’s founding generation — including Mr Alavanos. Whether Mr Tsipras is an idealist hell-bent on upending the eurozone, or a cold-blooded dealmaker willing to compromise his hard line against the terms of Greece’s €245bn bailout, is no longer just a question for the Athens political gossip circuit.

Less than a month after the next prime minister moves into Maximos mansion, Greece’s five-year-old rescue is due to expire. About €4.3bn in sovereign debt comes due just a month later. Many involved in Greece’s wobbly finances believe that, without a sharp reversal by Mr Tsipras, Athens could default on its debts, restarting market panic and, potentially, even force an exit from the eurozone.

So is Alexis Tsipras a genial compromiser, or an unyielding firebrand?

“I’m a compromiser because I want to have realistic goals,” Mr Tsipras says with a smile, sitting in his office in Syriza’s Athens headquarters. “At the same time, I’m very decisive if I know it’s necessary to have a fight.”

Centrist background

If the European left’s prototypical leader comes from a labour union or academia, then Mr Tsipras’s background is the first thing that makes him different: his father ran a small construction company in Athens and was solidly a man of the centre, voting regularly for the social democratic PanHellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok).

“It was progressive, a progressive home,” Mr Tsipras recalls. “My family wasn’t a conservative family, but my family belonged to the middle class.”

Although politics was often debated at home, Mr Tsipras decided to attend Athens Polytechnic to study civil engineering and follow his father into the construction business.

The political bug was hard to shed, but the early 1990s was not an easy time for students on the left. Like the US’s New Democrats and UK’s New Labour, Pasok had embraced free-market economics, and Greece’s Communist party had been left unmoored by the fall of the Soviet Union. Mr Tsipras was attracted by a new party set up by a group of ex-communists called Synaspismos. They were seeking to modernise Greece’s far left, but it was a struggle.

“It wasn’t a popular choice if you wanted to have a girlfriend,” says Andreas Karitzis, a member of Syriza’s central committee who was a fellow Synaspismos activist at Polytechnic. “To be politically engaged in a collective way, it was something bizarre and strange, like studying UFOs.”

On an annual commemoration of the November 17, 1973 Polytechnic uprising, Mr Karitzis stood dumbfounded before the established parties who had taken over the university square with banners, leaflets and manpower. The handful of Synaspismos students had no equipment and no plans — much to the annoyance of their leader.

“Tsipras came, he looked at us and asked: ‘Why are you staring at each other’?” recalls Mr Karitzis. When the group complained all the best places had been taken, Mr Tsipras had enough. “He didn’t even answer. He just went straight up to the third floor of the closest building and took a table and put it up in the street.”

It was that kind of leadership that made party elders take notice. Alekos Flambouraris, a co-founder of the party, had come to the Polytechnic to watch his son in the university’s 1993 student elections. But he was distracted by the handsome young man who so wowed the assembly that his list won the vote.

“When the assembly was over, I went to meet him and asked, ‘What’s the deal with you?’” says Mr Flambouraris, now Mr Tsipras’s political guru. “Low-key as he was — and still is — he responded: ‘It wasn’t really such a big deal.’”

In 2000, he was put in charge of Synaspismos’ youth organisation — just as the wave of anti-globalisation demonstrations began to sweep the globe. The protests not only helped invigorate a nearly-dormant youth movement, but also exposed Mr Tsipras to counterparts across Europe. “He saw that this was the future of the left,” says Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, a Syriza legal adviser.

As was his tendency, Mr Tsipras tried to round the group’s rougher, more extreme edges. But some of the party’s founding generation began to grow uncomfortable with what they regarded as an apparent willingness to associate with groups advocating violence.

‘We like people in the street’

Maria Damanaki, Synaspismos’s first president who was known as “the voice” of the 1973 uprising, broke with the party in 2003. Although she declined an interview request, two party members said it was her growing concern about the party’s dalliance with violent fringe elements that ultimately drove her out.

“They were not trying to condone [political violence], or to justify it, but they were trying to explain the causes, the social causes. You know this approach,” says Spyros Lykoudis, one of the party’s co-founders.

Mr Lykoudis himself would also fall out with Mr Tsipras after a similar dispute over how to respond to street riots following the December 2008 killing of a teenager at the hands of Greek police. The riots caused widespread destruction in Athens, and political opponents accused Syriza of agitation. Some in the party felt a stronger stance should have been taken against violence. “Irrespective of the cause or the ideology as a pretext, terrorism is terrorism, it’s a criminal act,” says Mr Lykoudis.

Those close to Mr Tsipras laugh off suggestions they advocated violence. “We are nerds,” said Mr Karitzis. “It was a party of poets, singers, people who are not very macho. We were looking at each other asking: what are they saying about us?”

Still, some party leaders speak more equivocally of the 2008 riots. “Nobody [in the party] was ever arrested for smashing up a shop, but there was a social upheaval and we heard the voices,” said Nikos Voutsis, a leading Syriza MP who helped recruit Mr Tsipras into the party in 1993. “We’re not in favour of violence, but we like having people in the street protesting.”

For a small party like Synaspismos, the Athens mayoral election matters more than for other, bigger parties: it is one of the few times its candidate can be guaranteed similar exposure to the two big parties, New Democracy and Pasok, on television. So when Mr Alavanos, the Synaspismos leader, suggested substituting Mr Tsipras, just 32, for the 2006 race, many in the party blanched.

“The truth is, I was then against such a young person for the mayor of Athens,” says Yiannis Balafas, a member of the Syriza central committee. Like others in the party, Mr Balafas believed the rightful nod should go to Mihalis Papagiannakis, a veteran of the struggle against the military junta who had spent 15 years in the European parliament.

Mr Balafas was not alone. Mr Tsipras remembers “a big conflict” within the party over the choice. But he was determined. Instead of running a traditional campaign, they targeted young people, running charity football games between local homeless people and retired football stars.

“I tried to use more lively language, younger language,” Mr Tsipras recalls. “People wanted something different.” It proved a masterstroke. At a time the party was polling between 4-5 per cent nationwide, Mr Tsipras took 11 per cent of the vote. “That was the boom,” remembers Mr Tzanakopoulos. “His whole life changed.”

Although Mr Tsipras ran a clever campaign, even his closest advisers admit there was not much new in the policy platform. Almost universally, aides credited his “fresh face” as the reason behind the showing. But it would transform Mr Tsipras’s career. Any thoughts of an engineering career ended. He was now the face of the party.

In 2008, Mr Alavanos unexpectedly announced that he intended to step down as party leader. Unlike the 2006 mayoral battle, Mr Alavanos’s decision to anoint Mr Tsipras as his successor received little opposition.

But what would come next was not only the first real crisis of Mr Tsipras’s nearly unremitting rise. Within Greek politics, it has also become a Rorschach test for how Mr Tsipras is perceived.

After a rough first year as leader, Mr Tsipras suddenly found himself challenged by Mr Alavanos, his one-time mentor, who wanted to run the party in the 2009 national elections. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Alavanos declines to discuss the clash. But people who have spoken to Mr Alavanos say he believed he had given Mr Tsipras a smaller job — heading Synaspismos — while he shouldered the larger project of creating Syriza, a coalition of leftist parties.

Mr Tsipras says he believed it was his right to lead the party in the elections. So he decided to stand up to his former champion. “It was the time I decided to behave more like a leader,” he says. “It was the first time since I entered politics that I asked to do something. All the other times, they asked me to do it.”

‘I became the real president’

To Mr Tsipras’s allies, it was a firm stand against a baffling volte-face. But to many in Greece’s political circles, it is the ultimate proof that Mr Tsipras will walk over anybody to become prime minister. “[Mr Alavanos] was his father, his political father,” says a former central committee member.

Mr Alavanos did not go quietly, making angry condemnations of Mr Tsipras. But the firm stance enabled Mr Tsipras to put his stamp on the party.

“It was not a good experience,” he says. “But before that, I was president as an experiment. After that I became the real president because I had the power of the people.”

In the 2009 national elections, the party performed respectably. Three years later, Mr Tsipras would shake the political foundations of Europe to its core, the party finishing second behind New Democracy in the first elections since the crisis hit Greece.

Although close associates say Mr Tsipras remains the same person as the student activist 25 years ago, those who have disagreed with him insist he has changed — becoming more moderate, and less anti-EU — as he has risen to the top.

A father now, friends say his partner — a high-school sweetheart he never got around to marrying — keeps him grounded, ensuring he still walks his two young sons to school and, when able, puts them to bed at night in a modest flat in a mixed neighbourhood in central Athens. But they also say he has become more decisive, occasionally showing flashes of temper that betray the cool exterior he shows the public.

Uncertainty about what Mr Tsipras might do if, in a matter of days, he is presented with the most important choice of his career grips almost every conversation among Athens’s political classes.

“He is willing to discuss, and use his consensus skills to find solutions, remaining loyal to the quantitative targets the country has to achieve — but with other kinds of tools and policies, not with austerity,” says Mr Flambouraris.

“He’s not, as the Germans often describe, going to hit his head against the wall.”

Additional reporting by Kerin Hope

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