Greek radical threatens Europe with anti-austerity ‘contagion’

SHAFAQNA – HE IS a brash, former volleyball player who failed in his first attempt to become the prime minister of Greece two years ago. Now Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left Syriza opposition party, may get his day. The 40-year-old could usher in Europe’s first anti-austerity government if a gamble by the present centre-right administration fails to pay off.

The Greek parliament is due on Wednesday to begin the tortuous process of choosing a new president. The extraordinary ballot was brought forward by Antonis Samaras, the prime minister, after international creditors last week gave Greece two extra months to finish a fiscal review of its finances, or face extended austerity measures.

It remains unclear whether Samaras and his fragile coalition government will have enough votes to support his candidate: Stavros Dimas, a former European commissioner.

Although the Greek presidency is largely ceremonial, failure to agree on a replacement for Karolos Papoulias, 85, would mean a general election early next year — and possible victory for Tsipras, whose radical policies include raising salaries for public sector workers and reinstating their Christmas bonuses axed in 2010 as part of the government’s austerity cuts.

Vowing to rescind the tough terms of a massive multibillion euro bailout loan, Tsipras, a civil engineer from a wealthy family, has rekindled fears about Greece’s place within the European Monetary Union. Victory for his party could embolden similar movements elsewhere in Europe trying to fight spending cuts.

“Contagion is the operative word,” said Megan Greene, chief economist at London-based Maverick Intelligence.

“With 2015 being a huge election year across Europe — from Spain and Portugal to Finland and the UK — an anti-austerity government in Greece could trigger a broader anti-austerity rebellion across the Continent,” she said.

“That would be a stinging slap in the face for [German chancellor] Angela Merkel and her policies. The market reverberations would be global.”

Tsipras went into politics after suffering a serious knee injury as a volleyball player. He rose to prominence in the 1990s leading student protests for the communist party. Just over a decade later, he became the leader of Syriza and his promise to tear up the country’s loan agreement gained him rock star status.

In the crucial 2012 election, held at the height of the Greek economic crisis, his party, an alliance of leftist factions, finished a close second to Samaras’s centre-right New Democracy party.

Exploiting public anger against the austerity measures imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Tsipras’s political fortunes rocketed in May’s European elections. His party won 26% of the popular vote, three points more than Samaras’s party. Opinion polls continue to rank Syriza as Greece’s most popular party; the latest shows a lead of 11 points over the conservatives.

With national elections likely as early as January 25, Tsipras has tried to ease concerns among lenders, taming his radical rhetoric in recent months, proposing a tax-and-spend programme to jump- start the economy.

He insists he is pro-European and wants to reform the EU, not break it up. Since the May elections he has moved to raise his profile abroad, running for European Commission president and forging alliances with other troubled economies in Europe’s south.

Many in Europe remain wary of him, however. Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economic and financial affairs commissioner, will meet Samaras and other leading government officials during a visit to Athens tomorrow — but not Tsipras.

If Samaras succeeds in securing Dimas’s election, there will be no need to call general elections until 2016, buying his government time to push through reforms.

That victory is far from assured, however. The government controls 155 seats, short of the 200 majority needed in the first two rounds of voting and of the 180 required in the final ballot on December 29.

Tsipras is confident the government is playing its last hand. “It’s game over for them and austerity,” he said.

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