Greeks could shake up eurozone
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ATHENS -- For the past eight years, Greece's leaders have had impressive degrees from top world universities, Amherst, Harvard and the London School of Economics among them. They have left the country in quite a pickle, and the question now is whether a 37-year-old, Greek-educated civil engineer can do any better.
Alexis Tsipras comes from a grand tradition in Greece's boisterous democracy, a strident left-winger who cut his teeth in student politics and, like his predecessors in the 1970s who helped overthrow a military junta, is rattling the establishment. His student movement was called "The Earthquake," and that's what many worry will be felt if he becomes prime minister in a Sunday election that could determine whether Greece remains in the eurozone -- or one of Europe's central projects begins to unravel.
Mr. Tsipras has pledged to discard the austerity program the Greek government agreed to in return for international loans. Syriza party leaders say he will effectively nationalize the country's banks. He insists that the leverage is on Greece's side -- that, in the end, the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde will cave and give the recession-plagued country more time and more money, rather than risk a euro exit.
If there's any doubt about the stakes, the world's central banks are girding for the worst.
"On Sunday, the old world will die," Mr. Tsipras said at an Athens rally Thursday, his brow knitted and sweaty on a sultry Greek night. Invoking what has become Greece's modern version of a mythic beast -- the "memorandum" that lays out the strict conditions for the country's bailout loans -- he made clear what will happen if Syriza wins enough parliamentary seats to form a government.
"This will be a historic change for Greece and Europe. ... The memorandum is coming to an end."
That sort of epochal language is driving Syriza's popularity in a country weary of a five-year recession that only seems to deepen, and of a pile of debt that has grown larger in the hands of bailout lenders such as the IMF, the European Central Bank and other European nations.
Right now, Greece is obliged to pay about $15 billion a year in interest alone, money those institutions sequester from each chunk of Greece's emergency loans -- kind of like a credit-card company adding monthly payments to the balance of a bill.
At the National Technical University of Athens, where Mr. Tsipras studied how to build roads and fire up a crowd, former teachers remember a strong-willed student. The campus outside the city center is speckled with revolutionary graffiti, while student opinion covers the spectrum from hard-left anti-capitalist to hard-right anti-immigrant.
"He has been in protests and occupations since he was a teenager," said Konstantinos Moutzouris, who was chairman of the civil engineering department when Mr. Tsipras was a student and now is a conservative candidate for parliament on the Greek island of Lesbos. "He is soft-spoken, but if you dig inside him, he is iron. You don't change his position," Mr. Moutzouris said.
The perception that Mr. Tsipras will prove too strident for the intricacies of an international financial negotiation is one reason the election is an apparent dead heat between Syriza and the center-right New Democracy party, led by Antonis Samaras.
Mr. Samaras, a Harvard MBA, was a key opposition figure under earlier governments and signed letters agreeing to the international bailout terms. In New Democracy circles, there is talk that a Tsipras victory would prompt Ms. Merkel and others to make an example of Greece and push it from the euro to prove that the region will enforce its budget and economic standards -- courting short-run calamity in return for longer-term confidence.
New Democracy television ads set that tone, with disappointed school children wondering why they don't get to use the euro like other kids around Europe -- even in Cyprus! -- and a Greek flag sadly descending from among the others in the European Union.
Syriza's ads note how Mr. Samaras is suddenly ready to demand easier terms for the deal he endorsed just a few weeks ago, when Greece signed a second bailout package that was already a renegotiation from its original 2010 rescue.
Assuming a government emerges from Sunday's voting -- an election last month left New Democracy in the lead and Syriza second, but neither able to form a coalition with Greece's myriad other parties -- the real battle will be joined. Whoever takes power will have to open immediate talks with the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission over an urgently needed tranche of bailout money -- negotiations that will set the fate of the bailout program and perhaps the euro itself.
First Published June 16, 2012 12:05 am