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Greece's Tsipras proves himself a canny gambler

Greece's radical leader Alexis Tsipras pulled off the biggest gamble of his already dramatic political career as he romped to victory in a snap election Sunday.

[ATHENS] Greece's radical leader Alexis Tsipras pulled off the biggest gamble of his already dramatic political career as he romped to victory in a snap election Sunday.

His high-stakes decision to go to the country when the far-left rump of his Syriza party went into open rebellion against him, paid off.

Many had thought Mr Tsipras' U-turn in signing a painful austerity deal with the debt-ridden country's creditors days after he had called a referendum to reject it, would cost him dear.

But in the end Greeks seemed to trust their rookie prime minister more than the traditional parties who created the economic mess the country is in.

Frustratingly for the charismatic young leader, early results indicated that he would fall just short of an absolute majority for a second time and was poised to reform a coalition with the nationalist Independent Greeks.

Syriza's emphatic win also defied the polls which suggested the race with the right-wing New Democracy party - supposedly revived by its new leader Vangelis Meimarakis - was too close to call.

"I think the goal of an absolute majority is totally achievable," Mr Tsipras predicted ahead of the vote. "Syriza will certainly be the biggest political party in the country."

The first radical-left leader to win office in the EU, his victory in January's general election caused a political earthquake, and boosted other anti-austerity movements on the rise elsewhere in the eurozone, particularly in Spain.


The boyish smile has lost a little of its edge since, and Mr Tsipras has gained weight too after months of late nights haggling with its European Union and International Monetary Fund creditors trying to keep Greece afloat.

But Sunday's result has shown he has matured into a canny political operator, deftly offloading Syriza's rebellious unreconstructed Marxists - as well as his flamboyant and voluble former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis - while consolidating his own position at its head.

While he may be tired, Greek voters are equally exhausted. The election was the third this year alone, and the fifth since 2010, when revelations of the country's deep financial troubles first emerged.

Mr Tsipras had said the election was an opportunity to deliver a "key message" to Europe against austerity and the rule of the rich.

The vote was about whether "the old system that governed for 40 years is going to return or if we are going to take a step forward", he told supporters at the Syriza's final rally on Friday.

His rollercoaster seven months in power, which saw him repeatedly lock horns with other European leaders, has made him a wiser man, he believes. "The other word to describe our mistakes is 'experience', and I am more experienced now," he said during a televised debate this month.

Mr Tsipras has a reputation for bold gambles, but in July he took one of his riskiest by agreeing to the kind of tough reforms he and a clear majority of Greeks had rejected in a referendum in exchange for a new 86-billion-euro (S$136.1 billion) bailout to keep the country afloat.

Days later, 25 hardline Syriza MPs quit the party, stripping Mr Tsipras of his parliamentary majority. He stepped down as prime minister on August 20, calling a new election in the hope of returning in a stronger position.


Greece's youngest premier in 150 years, Mr Tspiras came to power by accusing creditors of bringing the country to its knees through years of steep spending cuts.

The jury is still out on whether he capitulated to "blackmail" from Greece's creditors in agreeing to the unpopular new bailout, or pulled his country back from the abyss.

A fan of Che Guevara and hater of neckties, 41-year-old Tsipras forged his firebrand image early, protesting as a teenager for students' right to skip class if they wanted.

It was at high school too that he met Betty Baziana - the mother of his two boys - when both joined the Communist Youth. They have never married, despite the country's strong conservative traditions.

An engineer by training, Mr Tsipras was born in the suburbs of Athens in 1974, the year a seven-year army dictatorship that mercilessly persecuted leftists collapsed.

His first steps in politics were shaped by hard-left positions as he took up with the loose radical coalition Synaspismos. He transformed it into the far more disciplined Syriza, becoming its leader in 2008, aged just 34.

In Brussels this year, his erratic negotiating tactics infuriated creditors, who accused the Greeks of gambling the country's future by engaging in irresponsible brinkmanship.

Many Greeks were also angered when he went against their 61.31 per cent "No" vote in the referendum to bent the knee to Brussels. But Mr Tsipras is still widely regarded as competent.

Even after the broken promises, many voters believe he acts honestly and with their interests at heart - a break with past leaders they perceived as corrupt and beholden to powerful interests.


Read more on the Greek crisis here