3:38pm

Fri June 15, 2012
Europe

Greek Leftist Leader Up For 'Worst Job' In Europe

Originally published on Fri June 15, 2012 8:41 pm

A few short weeks ago, the Greek politician Alexis Tsipras was a young rebel leading Syriza, a fractious leftist coalition best known for anti-austerity protests. Now, his party could come in first in Sunday's election.

The party's possible win alarmed the German edition of the Financial Times as it posted an online appeal in Greek calling on voters to resist his demagoguery.

But Tsipras, a civil engineer who has been involved in leftist politics since his teens, says his program to roll back austerity will save the euro from its ballooning debt crisis.

"How can austerity continue and the eurozone still enjoy stability?" he asks. "The borrowing rate for Spain [has] reached 7 percent. This is no coincidence. The medicine for treating this illness is wrong, and it has to change."

Syriza's headquarters are in an old building near a rundown square in central Athens. There's no air conditioning, and on a hot day, young supporters in sundresses and khakis work the phones and sort through campaign fliers.

Tsipras' small office is on the seventh floor. The room is decorated with a framed print of Picasso's anti-war painting, Guernica, and a bookshelf with tomes on political philosophy and soccer.

Thrust Into The Spotlight

Tsipras, 37, wearing a purple polo shirt and jeans, looks much younger than his age. He's visibly exhausted. Since his party rose from obscurity on May 6 to run neck and neck with the conservative, and much more established, New Democracy party, he keeps occupied with campaign rallies, policy papers and dozens of interviews.

"Our main hope for election night is that our European partners will have a measured response to the choice of Greek voters," he says. "I don't think anyone will doubt the right of the Greek people to elect the government it chooses."

No party is expected to win an outright majority on Sunday, but Tsipras and his main rival, Antonis Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party, say it's crucial that some kind of coalition government is formed. Tsipras says he's able to form that coalition.

Tsipras' plans to restore Greece's economic health involve taking away its current life support. He wants to cancel the terms of the billions in bailout loans that are keeping Greece solvent.

He adds that the wage, pension and job cuts have slowed down the economy to the point where it's impossible for the country to pay off its loans.

And he says Greece doesn't need to reduce its public sector but just make it much more efficient.

"We have to put an end to the pattern of seeing shortages in hospitals but having people in parliamentary and ministerial offices who earn money for doing nothing," he says.

He says he will roll back wage cuts and taxes on the poor by cracking down on tax evasion and raising taxes on the rich. But the possibility of higher taxes may discourage future investment.

"For private investment to come to Greece, there needs to be a climate of stability," he says. "The problem isn't how high taxes are, but whether taxes are consistent and don't change every five days. It has to do with transparency and if there is oversight of exchanges and no money passed under the table."

Doubts About His Plans

His promise to cancel the austerity measures mandated by the bailout resonates deeply here in Greece, where unemployment is now at 22.6 percent.

Tsipras told supporters in Iraklion, Crete, that his party offered hope. An unemployed doctor named Maria Kourousi is willing to take a gamble on his offer. She says she is immune to the dire warnings about economic collapse if Tsipras is elected and cancels the terms of the bailout.

"OK, I have two degrees," Kourousi says. "I have no job. I will probably start working if I'm lucky in two or three years time. I'm 32 years old and my parents actually give me pocket money so I can survive. So I have nothing to lose, certainly."

But Greece could lose if Tsipras miscalculates, says Gikas Hardouvelis, who served as the top economic adviser to the former technocrat prime minister, Lucas Papademos.

"The idea of erasing everything is completely unrealistic because let's not forget our European partners are also our lenders," he said. "We cannot claim we will renegotiate without having a counterparty on the other side. There is always a counterparty."

If the international lenders stop loans because Greece reneges on the current terms, the country could run out of cash as early as next month. That leaves whoever becomes prime minister after Sunday with what may be the worst job in Europe.

"Nobody can choose when to make a date with history," Tsipras says, laughing a little at his own unlikely place in it. "Maybe this is our last chance, our last chance to put the brakes on our country's downward spiral."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Just a few weeks ago, the Greek politician, Alexis Tsipras, was a young upstart, leading a fractious leftist coalition, but his party, Syriza, could finish first in Sunday's parliamentary election. Tsipras has vowed to cancel the austerity measures that Greece accepted in exchange for a bailout from its European partners.

The prospect of that has so unnerved the Germans, who are footing much of the bill, that the German edition of the Financial Times today posted an online appeal in Greek. It called on voters to resist the demagoguery of Tsipras and protect the European Monetary Union.

Joanna Kakissis spoke with Tsipras in Athens and he explained why he thinks his program won't hurt the euro, but actually save it.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The Syriza headquarters is in a weathered old building near a rundown square in central Athens. Young supporters in sundresses and khakis work the phones and sort campaign flyers in the lobby.

Thirty-seven-year-old Alexis Tsipras, in a purple polo shirt and jeans, sits in a small office. It's a stifling day and he seems exhausted from the campaign. His party rose from obscurity to place second in last month's inconclusive parliamentary elections with a simple message - austerity is killing Greece and the eurozone.

ALEXIS TSIPRAS: (Through translator) Just before talking to you, I switched on my computer and saw that the borrowing rate for Spain had reached seven percent. This is no coincidence. The medicine for treating this illness is wrong and it has to change.

KAKISSIS: Tsipras says the wage, pension and job cuts have slowed down the economy to the point where it's now impossible for Greece to pay off its loans. He says Greece doesn't need to reduce its public sector, but just to make it much more efficient.

TSIPRAS: (Through translator) We have to put an end to the pattern of seeing shortages in hospitals but having people in parliamentary and ministerial offices who earn money for doing nothing.

KAKISSIS: He says he'll roll back wage cuts and taxes on the poor and, instead, crack down on tax evasion and raise taxes on the rich. But won't higher taxes discourage investment?

TSIPRAS: (Through translator) For private investment to come to Greece, there needs to be a climate of stability. The problem isn't how high taxes are, but whether taxes are consistent and don't change every five days. It has to do with transparency and if there is oversight exchanges and no money passed under the table.

KAKISSIS: His promise to cancel the austerity mandated by the bailout resonates deeply here in Greece, where unemployment is now more than 22 percent.

TSIPRAS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Tsipras told supporters in Iraklion, Crete that his party offered hope. An unemployed doctor named Maria Kourousi is willing to take a gamble on his offer. She says she's immune to the dire warnings about economic collapse and a return to the drachma if Tsipras is elected and cancels the terms of the bailout.

MARIA KOUROUSI: OK. I have two degrees. I have no job. I will probably start working, if I'm lucky, two or three years' time. I'm 32 years old and my parents actually give me pocket money so that I can survive. So I have nothing to lose, certainly.

KAKISSIS: But Greece could lose if Tsipras miscalculates, says Gikas Hardouvelis. He served as the top economic advisor to the former technocrat prime minister, Lucas Papademos.

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: The idea of erasing everything is completely unrealistic because let's not forget our European partners are also our lenders. We cannot claim we will renegotiate without having a counter-party on the other side. There's always a counter-party.

KAKISSIS: And, if the international lenders stop loans because Greece reneges on the current terms, the country could run out of cash as early as next month and that leaves whoever becomes prime minister after Sunday with what may be the worst job in Europe.

TSIPRAS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Nobody can choose when to make a date with history, Alexis Tsipras says, laughing a little at his own unlikely place in it. Maybe this is our last chance, our last chance to put the brakes on our country's downward spiral.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.