EU jitters as victorious Tsipras hints at showdown

His charisma and political nous are matched only by his talent for somersaults, but will Tsipras stay the course?

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Triumphantly returned to power in Athens, Alexis Tsipras has shed his most troublesome radicals. What gives Europe the jitters now is the fear he will use his new-found authority not to persuade Greece that Brussels must be obeyed, but to try to find ways around its stringent bailout terms.

In this light, his early remarks after winning Sunday’s general election were not entirely reassuring. Now, the whole Greek parliament except for a few radicals is committed to staying in the eurozone, and has signed up for the drastic reforms necessary to do so. This is a seismic shift: for the past five years, Greek politics has been dominated by the conflict between pro- and anti-bailout forces.

In July’s referendum nearly 62 per cent, egged on by Mr Tsipras, voted to reject the bailout conditions. Six days later Wolfgang Schauble, the German Finance Minister who Greeks love to hate, suggested pushing Greece out of the euro. 

Overnight, the Greek mood changed. Mr Schauble’s suggestion “helped crystallise in a lot of people’s minds that the threat of Greece leaving was clear and present”, said Nick Malkoutzis, a political commentator. “It was the first time that the idea of Greece leaving the eurozone had been formally put down on a piece of paper.” And on Sunday the overwhelming majority of Greeks who voted opted to stay inside.

Syriza’s left-wing defectors’ new, pro-Grexit party, failed to win a single seat. “Now 267 MPs out of 300 are signed up to the bailout programme,” said economist Vagelis Agapitos. “That’s a big change.”

But will Mr Tsipras – his charisma and political nous matched only by his talent for somersaults – stay the course? “The return of a second Syriza-led government will concern Greece’s creditors,” said Mujtaba Rahman, of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, which reckons there is a 30 per cent risk of Grexit over the next two years.

JP Morgan analyst Malcolm Barr warned that the result “provides a platform upon which Syriza will continue to challenge significant parts of the [bailout] programme”. Soon after his victory, Mr Tsipras celebrated with Panos Kammenos, leader of Independent Greeks (Anel), his quirky, nationalist and right-wing coalition partner since January, which won 10 seats.

Like Mr Tsipras, Anel was once stridently anti-bailout but has signed up to the new terms. “Joining with Anel is not the statesmanlike choice,” said Aggelos Tsakanikas, an economics professor in Athens. If Mr Tsipras had included socialists or centrists, “he would have had a wider pool of people to choose from”.

After talks with Mr Kammenos, Mr Tsipras said: “We now have the great opportunity, taking steady steps and using the four years of our mandate, to implement our main commitment, which is to give an honest fight and to shed our blood if necessary to stop our people bleeding further.” The note of defiance was unmistakeable.

His former deputy finance minister, Dimitris Mardas, was more specific. “We will soften certain elements of the agreement, without breaking our [bailout] commitments,” he said. Perhaps before long Ms Merkel will have to let Wolfgang Schauble off the leash again.