In case you are just tuning in to eurozone-economic-crisis headlines, Greece’s beleaguered prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is easy to pick out of the crowd of European leaders: He’s the one not wearing a tie.
The lack of sartorial flair is his (and his Syriza colleagues’) distinguishing feature on the world stage, but it’s not a casual choice. It’s a statement. Tsipras claims he will not don one until Greece’s debt problems get fixed.
Based on his government’s negotiations with other European leaders over the last six months, Tsipras may never put one on.
But while the bare necks are generally considered a symbol of the Syriza party’s lack of establishment culture, that doesn’t mean that Tsipras isn’t a politician. In fact, he’s one of the world’s most interesting these days.
The 40-year-old head from the far-left Syriza party saw a quick rise to power — the kind of rise that doesn’t ordinarily fall into the hands of a casual bystander. A profile in the Huffington Post says that “he rarely gets angry, and even when he does, he does not hold a grudge … He is, nevertheless, a man who wants to be in control.”
At 17, he led the occupation of his high school
In high school, he was moved by demonstrations against education reforms. At 17, as a member of the Communist Youth Of Greece, a young Tsipras “led the occupation of his high school, with pupils living, eating and sleeping in their classrooms, guarding the doors and cleaning the school for several months,” according to the BBC. During his stint in the Communist Youth in high school, Tsipras met Betty Baziana, the woman who would eventually become his domestic partner.
Both Tsipras and Baziana went on to study at the National Polytechnic University of Athens, where he pursued a degree in civil engineering and she in electrical engineering. After leaving school, he ended up in the Youth of the Coalition of the Left, a precursor to his current party. (Syriza is an acronym for the Greek name of the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left.)
He quickly moved up the ranks as a young activist. The Telegraph reports that in 2001, at the age of 26, he was one of the “ringleaders” of a group of 1,000 Greeks hoping to make it to the protests of the G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy. (The Greek protesters, it seems, never made it to Genoa. They had their own protest after being refused entry by Italian police in the port of Ancona). But in the early days, Tsipras was still just a politically active civil engineer.
That changed in 2006. With the backing of the Greece’s radical-leftist coalition, Tsipras ran for mayor of Athens at the age of 32. He lost, but received almost 11% of the vote — more than double what the party was polling at elsewhere. A profile in the Financial Times says that this was the moment that “would transform Mr Tsipras’s career. Any thoughts of an engineering career ended. He was now the face of the party.”
Economic collapse fuelled his support
Tsipras was overwhelmingly elected president of the Coalition of the Left in 2008. In 2009 he was elected to Greek Parliament and became Syriza’s leader there and began his march toward becoming prime minister as Greece’s economy descended into chaos.
With the economic collapse came a parallel collapse in support for the centrist Greek parties that had ruled the country for so long. The Greek people became disillusioned with their leaders, and many turned toward Syriza.
Luke March, an expert on radical left and post-Soviet politics who teaches at the University of Edinburg, told Business Insider via email that Tsipras’s “role has been as a leader who is able to present himself as principled but pragmatic, a conciliator and statesmanlike. He’s not particularly charismatic, but these characteristics have helped unite the party till now.”
By 2015, after half a decade of austerity in Greece, Syriza’s leftist platform allowed it to storm to victory in the January 2015 Greek national elections, claiming 36% of the vote. The mandate seemed to be to throw off the yoke of austerity after years of penny-pinching in Greece.
However, March went on to say that Tsipras’s signature characteristics, principled but not charismatic, might now present an issue for resolving the Greek’s crisis. “The influential Left Platform with 30-40% of support within the leading echelons [of the party], which enthusiastically supports Grexit and wants no compromise with the ‘capitalist’ institutions… perhaps explain[s] why the party is now involved in so many u-turns at present,” March wrote.
In a speech the night of the election, Tsipras told a crowd in Athens, “You are an example of history which is changing … Your mandate is undoubtedly cancelling the bailouts of austerity and destruction. The troika for Greece is the thing of the past.”
Unfortunately for Tsipras, his election doesn’t seem to have gotten the Greek people much closer to seeing the results of a radical-leftist agenda (or really any leftist agenda). Immediately after Syriza’s victory, bailout negotiations began with Greece’s creditors. Leftist policies require the government to spend money, and that’s the one thing that the troika will not allow if it is to continue lending money to Greece.
In the end, just the specter of Tsipras’s radical-leftist agenda may squash his ability to enact it, despite being elected to do so.
In Al Jazeera America, the economist Branko Milanovic writes,
When Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke of ‘humiliation,’ [this is how he described the bailout deal on which he’s calling a referendum] he was saying the troika wanted to teach Syriza the lesson that it cannot rule from the left and stay in the eurozone. Or, to put it in graphic terms, bring Syriza to the pan-European table but wearing a jacket and tie.
On Sunday, the Greek people will head to the polls to vote on whether to accept the creditors’ latest bailout offer, which still includes several austerity measures. During a speech to the Greek people Tsipras indicated that if the measure passes, he may resign.