Alexis Tsipras: The PM playing roulette with Greece's future

  • AFP, Athens
  • Updated: Jul 06, 2015 09:00 IST

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Sunday got the public boost he sought to keep alive his government's tightrope talks with the country's EU-IMF creditors, but the consequences of his gamble remain unclear.

In the five months since he came to power vowing to deliver his country from years of biting austerity, Tsipras has kept Greece and Europe guessing.

For some he is a master strategist who has called the bluff of Greece's creditors by giving the people the final say on a painful debt deal.

To others he is a clueless novice, who has taken Greece into uncharted waters by hurriedly calling a vote that could send the country crashing out of the eurozone.

Less than six months after he was voted into office on an anti-austerity agenda, the 40-year-old premier on Sunday persuaded his nation again to support his aggressive stance against the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

And as an added bonus he saw his main political rival, conservative leader Antonis Samaras, resign in the bargain.

Summoned to give their opinion on the prospect of fresh cuts, more than 60% of Greeks responded to Tsipras' referendum on austerity with a resounding "No".

'NO' supporters hold a banner in front of the Parliament in Athens. Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said that the 'No' victory in the country's bailout referendum did not mean Athens was headed for a so-called Grexit. (AFP Photo)

The elated 40-year-old premier was immediately keen to bridge divisions caused by the plebiscite, insisting in a televised address: "From now on, we are all one."

"This is not a mandate of rupture with Europe, but a mandate that bolsters our negotiating strength to achieve a viable deal," he added.

But the practical ramifications of his victory are uncertain, with the country still critically short of cash, while the response of Greece's European creditors and the International Monetary Fund remains to be seen.

Always a rebel

As a teen Tsipras was already at the barricades, fighting for students to decide whether to go to classes.

"We want the right to judge for ourselves whether to skip class," he told a TV interviewer while leading a school sit-in at 17.

Despite his defiant pose and talk of ending twice bailed-out Greece's "humiliation", the young leader of the radical leftist Syriza party has made a slew of concessions in fraught talks with his eurozone counterparts.

He has agreed to continue to cut spending and implement structural reforms, leading former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to declare with satisfaction that Tsipras had "eaten his hat".

But on June 27, Tsipras drew a line in the sand.

Rejecting the additional austerity measures attached to a five-month, 12-billion-euro ($13.4-billion) extension of Greece's bailout programme, he took to the airwaves to announce a surprise referendum on the package in a week's time.

"The people must decide free of any blackmail," he declared.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C) leaves his office before his meeting with the Greek President in Athens. (AFP Photo)

On the ropes

Olivier Delorme, a Franco-Greek historian, said Tsipras "has made endless concessions and each time he has been knocked back".

"By saying 'don't be afraid' and talking of 'dignity restored' he is continuing a leitmotiv of resistance in Greek history," Delorme said, comparing Syriza's approach with Greek rebellion under Ottoman rule.

His insistence he is not for turning has made Tsipras the standard bearer of radical leftist parties across Europe.

But the Prime Minister's abrupt decision to test his vision of democracy with the referendum sparked scenes of panic in Greece, where people immediately mobbed ATMs after Saturday's broadcast to try withdraw cash.

A day later, as expected, the government introduced capital controls limiting bank withdrawals.

Tsipras said his first priority after the referendum would be to remedy that issue, and he urged the European Central Bank to consider the "humanitarian aspect" of its decision to keep Greek banks on a tight leash.

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