Can Europe Make It?

Who is Alexis Tsipras?

Who exactly is Alexis Tsipras, the man who may very well become Greece's next prime minister?

Takis S Pappas
15 January 2015

Alexis Tsipras: prime minister in waiting? Flickr/Daniele Vico. Some rights reserved.

If his party wins the January 25 snap parliamentary election in Greece, and he himself succeeds in forming a government, then Alexis Tsipras, the 41-year-old firebrand leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (or Syriza) party, will not only become Europe’s currently youngest prime minister, but, Cyprus apart, also the first leader of a hard-left government in the Continent.

As his populism does not bode well for the country’s badly harmed liberal institutions and his promise to tear up Greece’s bailout agreement and write off some of its debt has revived fears of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, the question is: who really is politician Alexis Tsipras and, given the circumstances in Greece, what is his leadership potential?

Born only four days after Greece’s transition to democracy on July 24, 1974, in a middle-class social milieu, his early life years were largely unexceptional. While in high school, he joined the Greek Communist Party youth, where he met his current partner, and excelled in school occupations.

As a student of civil engineering at the University of Athens, he became an active member of the student union. After that, he followed the typical career of political apparatchik. He joined the Synaspismos (meaning, coalition) party, then a merger of radical leftist forces, and served consecutively as political secretary of the party youth and an elected member of its Central Committee. In the 2006 municipal elections, the party chairman, Alekos Alavanos, proposed the 32-year-old Tsipras as a candidate mayor of Athens, thus elevating him to national prominence. 

It was at that time that Tsipras also made a brief, ill-fated attempt towards a professional career as an engineer, but, according to his own admission, the technical firm he helped establish was not particularly active, and even incurred some losses. In early 2008, Alavanos stepped down from the leadership of the party, which had been renamed Syriza, and was replaced by Tsipras, who now fully dedicated himself to his party and national politics. That was exactly when Greece entered its own political, and subsequently economic, whirl.

In the political crisis that commenced in Greece in December 2008, after the police shooting of a schoolboy in Athens and led to three weeks of violent mass rioting across the country, Syriza actively championed street mobilizations. Although many young people began to identify with the party, its electoral support still remained low: in the 2009 parliamentary elections it gained a rather poor 4.6 percent of the national vote.

Things however changed decisively once the fresh government of George Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) was forced in early 2010 to ask for a bailout of Greece in exchange for the implementation of harsh austerity measures. Then, a massive segment of Pasok’s electorate migrated to Syriza, which stood uncompromisingly against austerity.

In the election of May 2012, Syriza’s share of the national vote was 16.8 percent and in the follow-up election of June 2012, it climbed to almost 27 percent, with most of the credit going, of course, to the young party leader for his successful opposition tactics. As new elections now loom, Syriza is the clear favorite to win the contest and Tsipras to become premier. 

In both popular parlance and the news media, Alexis Tsipras is often presented as a charismatic leader and, to press the point, compared with the late Andreas Papandreou, the populist founder in the mid-1970s of Pasok, and, since he first won office in 1981, a long-time – and, indeed, charismatic – prime minister of Greece. But the comparison could not be more misleading for the sharp contrasts between the two leaders in almost every respect – social and intellectual background, prior professional history and career achievements, political authority and over-the-party command, and resonance of their messages to society.

Papandreou, first, the scion of a political family (his father, George Papandreou, had been twice Greece’s prime minister – in the 1940s and again in the 1960s), belonged to the upper class, received high-quality private education, and was groomed for ambitious roles in life. In his youth, he felt the strong attraction of progressive socialist ideas and became well versed in the intellectual debates of his era, both inside Greece and in the broader world.

Before entering politics, initially in the mid-1960s, as a minister in his father’s government, and then in the 1970s, Papandreou had also to show an impressive professional record. With a Harvard PhD in economics, he became a well-known economist in the United States and served as professor in several academic establishments, including Berkeley. He was a true cosmopolitan with a wide, and very convenient, network of acquaintances in both the academic and the political worlds.

When he decided to enter Greek politics after the collapse of dictatorship in 1974, Papandreou was firm on his decision to build his own party, instead of inheriting what was left of his father’s pre-authoritarian one. After engineering a series of expulsions and other purges of his internal party opposition, Papandreou was able to an absolute authority over Pasok, thereafter remaining its sole and supreme leader.  

Even most important was the fact that, as opposition party leader, Andreas Papandreou put forward a positive radical message, full of political vim and optimism: socialism. Greece at the time was a country with a plenty of confidence. It had just undergone a successful democratization, its economy was developing relatively well, and, by 1981, it became a full EU member. The promise of socialism seemed not only attractive, but feasible as well.

History of course repeats itself, but, as usual, the second time as farce. Greece’s 2015 is not its 1981, and Alexis Tsipras is not Andreas Papandreou. He lacks the social, professional and political experience that is necessary for the task he is called for; is mostly adept at low-level party politics, but still leads a motley coalition of forces he is not in complete control of; and, for all his genuine wish to put an end to austerity and hardship in Greek society, he lacks a concrete plan of action for achieving it. For, it is one thing in politics to say what you want to pull down, but an entirely different thing to explain what you are going to build up instead, and how.

Ironically, what Greece needs at this time of immense and enduring crisis is a charismatic leader in the truest sense of the term, that is, someone capable of forging a new social majority into a mass political formation under the banner of a sensible program for economic development and national regeneration. Most definitively, Tsipras is not that person. Which brings me to the theme of a famous lecture given my Max Weber to the Free Students Union in Bavaria in 1919, during the German revolution that led to the establishment of the Weimar Republic.

Warning that the revolution will not turn out well, Weber cautioned his audience of a coming “polar night of icy darkness and hardness,” during which hopes will collapse and politics will fail. For that night veil to be lifted, he urged, it would take leaders who consider high-level politics as their true vocation – men or women who, in the face of severe crisis, can still reasonably cry out “In spite of all, I have a realistic plan.”

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