Alexis Tsipras (Αλέξης Τσίπρας) is leader of the left coalition SYRIZA (ΣΥΡΙΖΑ) that since 2012 is the main opposition in the Greek parliament. In the 2014 European elections he stood as the candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, for the cross-national European Left alliance.
Born in 1974, Tsipras has been often hailed as the harbinger of something new in the midst of old and tired mainstream politics. But the symbolic power of his youth has often overshadowed any other aspect of his political persona. That Tsipras stands for change is clear enough. But what sort of change?
Tsipras first attracted the headlines when his political mentor Alekos Alavanos (ΑλέκοςΑλαβάνος) – who led the radicalisation of SYRIZA in the 2000s – put him forward as the party’s candidate for Athens’ mayor in 2006. The relative high percentage Tsipras received (10.5%) quickly established him as the symbol of a new type of politics, appealing especially to the young, and to the Left of the ‘social movements’. The publicity he received jettisoned him to stardom. In 2008 Alavanos pushed for Tsipras to succeed him as leader of the party.
But beyond the catchy media image of the youthful radical, little was known of his ideological identity. His speeches of the time were full of one-liners and folkish metaphors, and quite thin on substance. His seeming support for the rioters of December 2008 turned him quickly into the scapegoat of mainstream media and politicians. SYRIZA and Tsipras were returning to the role of the leftist pariah. In the parliamentary elections of 2009 SYRIZA received a disappointing 4.6% that seemed to point to a rapid decline of Tsipras’ star.
All that changed in 2010. Following the collapse of the whole system of politics, SYRIZA became the default force of opposition in crisis-hit Greece. Tsipras’ masterstroke in the weeks before the 2012 elections was to make forceful calls to all leftist parties to form an alliance that could pose a credible governing alternative. The reluctance of the orthodox Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to consider any co-operation was partly fed by Tsipras’ very real ideological vagueness. Ultimately, however, it established SYRIZA as the sole leftist force that had the will to govern, attracting thus the support of a wide spectrum of voters, from anarchists to socialists.
SYRIZA’s election performance in the May (16.78%) and June (26.9%) elections of 2012 transformed Tsipras to an international star. The global media dedicated their front pages to him and leftist activists across Europe invested their hopes to ‘Alexis’. The myth of Tsipras was again in the making. In the 2014 elections the euro-communist alliance in Italy was simply named ‘L’altra Europa con Tsipras’!
The main critique levelled against him is the lack of substance and a readiness to accommodate with forces that are seen as essentially antithetical to any leftist vision of politics. What sort of Left politics does Tsipras believe in?
Stardom has allowed him to cover a number of grey areas that he has either kept intentionally vague, or on which he has changed positions. Should Greece stay in the Eurozone? Should Greece pay off all its debt? Should Greece withdraw from all the memoranda that previous governments have signed with the Troika? How will SYRIZA restructure the Greek economy?
Tsipras avoids clear answers and thrives instead on focusing on conjunctures: Greece will keep the euro for as long as this a positive thing, etc. But this focus on the political chess-game shows him to be less of an ideologue and more of a reformist.
In his defence, the ferocity with which the international establishment attacked and undermined the possibility of SYRIZA coming first in the June 2012 elections was shocking. The spectrum of international pariahdom and civil conflict in Greece were sobering for many in the revolutionary Left. Possibly the lesson for Tsipras has been that if any leftist wants to govern they need to be at least seen to be seen as non-ideological.
Tsipras has risen to global prominence as a symbol for what the Left can hope for in the 21st century. But still, four years into the crisis, his party still struggles to overtake in the public opinion polls the parties that governed Greece for the last 40 years and led it to the crisis! The pin-up boy of the Left might easily end up becoming a symbol of the limits of parliamentary leftist politics.