As Greece votes, many in EU root for a once-reviled leftist firebrand

Former Prime Minister Tsipras is now seen as one who could offer Greece the stability it needs to move beyond its political and financial crises.

ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/Reuters
Thousands of supporters attended the final campagin rally for former Greek prime minister and leader of leftist Syriza party Alexis Tsipras prior to Sunday's general elections on Athens' Syntagma square.

When leftist firebrand Alexis Tsipras was surging in polls ahead of Greek elections in January, Brussels looked on with dismay.

But the former prime minister, who resigned in August and called new elections, is facing Greeks' judgment again on Sunday. And the same European leaders who once hoped for his political demise might be rooting for him this time.

The conditions that have given rise to radical leftism in Europe still spook the political set. But in the eyes of many, Mr. Tsipras – who once called creditors “criminals” – is best positioned to give Greece the grounding it needs amid political and economic disillusionment, the prospect of far-right extremism, and a growing migration crisis as he deploys his leftist credentials to navigate Greece through unpopular reforms ahead.

“[European Union leaders] think he can control society … that the situation is most stable with Tsipras,” says Valia Aranitou, a professor of political sociology at the University of Crete.

This is the third time Greeks are being asked to vote this year alone – first during the snap elections in January, and then during a referendum on bailout terms in July. In each case, they have voted for Tsipras on his promise to “rip up” bailout agreements, known here as the "memorandum." Instead, what they got was a third bailout with stricter terms.

Indeed, one reason Europe isn't wary of Tsipras anymore is that as a leader, he has proven far more radical in rhetoric than in practice.

That has cost him support from followers. While Syriza garnered 36 percent of the vote in January, most polls see the party neck-and-neck with or just slightly ahead of center-right New Democracy.

New Democracy was once Brussels’ preferred winner. Under the party’s leadership, heading into the January race, Greece saw a slight economic improvement. But today the picture isn’t so simple.  Whoever wins Sunday’s race must oversee painful reforms required by the 86-billion-euro bailout package that Tsipras signed in August. If New Democracy wins, Syriza could once again turn into the fiery opposition that will fuel opposition to the bailout, instead of playing the role of the party in power trying to manage its implementation.

As Professor Aranitou puts it:  “If we have to have a memorandum, it is better to have it with Syriza.”

Not all Greeks see it that way. Paris Kormaris, a magazine editor in downtown Athens, joined the tide of Greeks supporting Syriza in January because it promised to undo years of austerity and EU-mandated policies.  

“The Tsipras government was elected to do something totally different than what at the end it was obligated to do,” he says. Like Tsipras, Mr. Kormaris is reversing his original stance – this time, voting for the right.

Such political to-and-fro is worrying to Nikos Demertzis, a professor of political sociology at the University of Athens. He says one of the beneficiaries could be the extreme right party Golden Dawn, which polls indicate will be the No. 3 party.

“There has been a widespread anti-Westernism that has accelerated and been accentuated during the last three years,” Mr. Demertzis says. That could make some voters ripe for the rhetoric of ethno-nationalism, he says, and of a “Greece surrounded by enemies.”

And now the migration issue, with thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa landing on Greek shores as they flee violence at home, has given the party another flame to fan. That has EU leaders on alert as they grapple with growing anti-foreigner sentiment on the continent.

“Greece has got to stop hosting foreigners and send them home,” Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos told a crowd at a campaign rally Wednesday. He, like Hungarian officials, has called for “the army to be sent in” to protect Greece’s borders.

Of the front-runners, neither party is expected to get the roughly 38 percent of votes needed for a majority in the 300-seat parliament. It is almost certain that only a coalition party can lead. New Democracy has said it would govern with Syriza. But Tsipras has rejected forming a coalition with the mainstream party, instead saying he would seek partnership with the anti-austerity, right-wing Independent Greeks, with whom he governed after his win in January, or even one of the smaller pro-bailout parties in the center. 

While some in Europe would welcome a broad coalition with Syriza and New Democracy at the helm, there are political risks. It could disillusion those who supported Syriza precisely because it was not the mainstream, possibly giving a boost to more extremist factions. Already some say the political maneuvering of the past year has discredited all politicians. 

Areti Talasoglou, a tennis trainer, says no politician is acting like a public servant. “It’s their personal interest over the general interest,” he says. “That’s why I will not vote. I will abstain.” In fact, he says, for the first time in his life he is considering moving abroad.

Eleni Farasteli, a civil servant, says she has no idea who she is voting for – but believes it makes no difference anyway. “One or the other will win,” she says, “and the same mess will continue.”

Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.

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