By Tony Barber and Kerin Hope, Financial Times

Some Greeks, like Pericles, are born great. Others, like Ioannis Capodistrias, the first head of state of modern Greece, achieve greatness. One day Alexis Tsipras may have greatness thrust upon him – if it falls to the 37-year-old former communist student rebel to attempt Greece’s salvation from the double disaster of a eurozone exit and a national economic meltdown.

With his youthful good looks, open-neck designer shirts and BMW motorcycle, Mr Tsipras appears more like a playboy than a politician grimly awaiting the call of destiny. Greeks who know him say he is, in some respects, an overgrown student politician, but that it is short-sighted to underestimate his ambition and willpower.

“He was a likeable young man,” recalls Thanos Veremis, a retired history professor at Athens university, who met him before the eruption of Greece’s debt crisis in October 2009. “He looked streetwise. He’s no thug. He’s very composed. He never loses his cool. This is a good sign. It shows he’s intelligent.”

Nevertheless Prof Veremis brackets Mr Tsipras with other students of his era who leveraged loud-mouthed radicalism into a political career. “Student politicos like him were out to do well out of politics. Politics was a business for them. Tsipras has made it big time. He’s now the aspiring prime minister of Greece.”

Unpublished opinion polls suggest that Mr Tsipras and his opposition Syriza party are unlikely to win an outright majority in tomorrow’s parliamentary elections. Syriza may not even beat the conservative New Democracy party to first place. But if Syriza were to win the most seats in the legislature, Karolos Papoulias, Greece’s president, would ask Mr Tsipras to try to form a government.

For Greece’s EU partners and world financial markets, not to mention the dwindling number of his fellow citizens who have not yet withdrawn their savings from Greek banks, this is a deeply unsettling prospect. Syriza’s hostility to the strict terms on which Greece has received two multibillion-euro rescues from the EU and International Monetary Fund implies that a Tsipras-led government would find it hard to moderate its policies, strike compromises with its creditors and keep Greece in the eurozone.

In fact, this may misread Mr Tsipras’s poker-style tactics: he is raising the ante before he knows what is in his hand, and once he sees his cards after the election he may adopt a less intransigent approach. He has noticeably toned down his anti-creditor rhetoric since Greece’s May 6 election, when Syriza was catapulted from nowhere into second place by the collapse of support for Pasok, Greece’s once dominant socialist party. Syriza no longer denounces outright the EU-IMF loan terms, but calls for their “replacement”. Influential party strategists insist Syriza will not unilaterally suspend Greek debt repayments and will, in its own way, honour Greece’s commitments to fiscal discipline.

If, however, Mr Tsipras were to lead the Greek delegation at an EU summit scheduled for June 28-29, Europe’s leaders would discover that a wily determination lies beneath a gracious charm. “Tsipras has always been charismatic, but he’s a bully, too. He always wanted to get his own way,” says a former schoolmate.

In his defiance of lecturing foreigners, scorn for international capitalism and enthusiasm for leftwing leaders such as Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s anti-US president, Mr Tsipras bears a resemblance to Andreas Papandreou, the late socialist Greek prime minister. But whereas Mr Papandreou’s bête noire was US imperialism, Mr Tsipras grew up in a world shaped by Greece’s EU and eurozone membership. He aims his fire at European policy makers who, in his view, connive cravenly at the cruel impositions of global finance.

Moreover, Mr Tsipras is not Papandreou’s equal as the inventor and controller of a vote-winning, patronage-distributing party machine. Partly, this is because he consciously dissociates himself from the corrupt political practices that dragged Greece into the mire. But he has yet to show that he can hold Syriza together for the long term. The party contains a mishmash of groups ranging from leftwing socialists and ecologists to Trotskyists, Maoists and Castroites – “a cemetery of dead ideas”, says Prof Veremis.

Unlike the political generation before him, Mr Tsipras was educated entirely in Greece. His long-time partner is his high-school girlfriend, with whom he is expecting his second child, and he travels abroad less than Greek sophisticates who mock his spoken English.

With a comfortable middle-class upbringing and little fear of financial insecurity, he joined Greece’s Communist Youth movement as a teenager in 1990 – precisely the time when communist one-party rule was disintegrating in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. He organised sit-ins at high schools around Athens and argued that students should have the right whether or not to attend school. Greek communism proved a touch too dogmatic for the career-conscious Mr Tsipras, who switched after a few years to Synaspismos, a leftwing party that is the core of Syriza.

He attracted national attention in 2006 when he ran for mayor of Athens, coming third with 10.5 per cent of the vote. Two years later, at the age of 33, he became leader of Syriza, replacing Alecos Alavanos, a former European parliamentarian who early on had recognised his protégé’s leadership potential. A dispute then flared up between the pair, one Syriza member recalls. “Tsipras didn’t want to be controlled any longer by the intellectual old guard,” she says.

Now Mr Tsipras is displaying similar reluctance to be controlled by Europe’s political and economic hierarchs. It is a form of resistance many Greeks admire – but, with their nation’s fate in the balance, perhaps not so much that they want to find out as early as tomorrow how great he really is.


Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor. Kerin Hope is the FT’s Athens’ correspondent