Alexis Tsipras, sworn in today as Greece’s youngest prime minister since 1865, gave his youngest son the middle ‘Ernesto’ in honour of the Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
As a political statement, that is analogous to someone with ambitions to be a rock star calling his son John Paul George Ringo.
Che Guevara was dead seven years before Tsipras was born. He was a sixties icon whose face was seen everywhere in the days of flower power. Hippie radicals admired him above the powerful communists alive at the same time, such as Mao Tse-tung, or Tito, or Fidel Castro because apart from a few years with Castro in Cuba, Guevara never exercised power. There was no judging how his political ideas impacted on living people. He was like the hero of a romantic adventure story, killed trying to take the revolution to Bolivia.
What Greece’s charismatic new leader offers his country also has the ingredients of romance. Greece has been the EU’s basket case for a long time. The terms of the £188m bail out imposed by the EU, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund were harsh and humiliating: tax increases, a freeze on state pensions, bans on early retirement and deep cuts in government salaries.
Tsipras has called it “fiscal waterboarding”. His election promise was “no more bailouts, no more submission no more blackmailing" – an attractive message for hundreds of thousands of Greeks whose income is barely enough to live on.
His opposition to EU imposed austerity arises from a lifelong belief that the capitalist system is intrinsically rotten and ripe for replacement.
Prior to the election, Tsipras was likened to Harry Potter. Greece's now-deposed deputy prime minister, right-wing Evangelos Venizelos, compared him to JK Rowling's fictional wizard for making fantastical promises that he won't be able to keep. He said: "Tsipras promises paradise on earth without sacrifices, a return to prosperity in some sort of magical way, as if he was Harry Potter."
Tsipras has already made history, as he became the first prime minister in Greece to be sworn in without the traditional oath on a Bible and blessing of basil and water from the Greek Archbishop. Later, in his symbolic first act as Prime Minsiter, he laid flowers at a memorial to Greek Resistance fighters killed by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Born in 1974, the year that Greece was liberated from the neo-fascist rule of the 'Greek colonels, he joined the Young Communists in the 1980s, and in 1991 organised a highly publicised occupation of his high school, during which students slept and ate together.
He went on to study civil engineering at university and continued his political rise.
He took over leadership of the Syriza party in 2008 at the age of 34. The party is an amalgam of left wing groups, ranging from Maoists to Greens, who came together in 2004. Given the fractiousness of the far left and its love of internecine feuds, it is a tribute to Tsipras’s leadership that he has held the party together and made it currently the single most powerful force in Greek politics.
He is a fearless and skillful political operator, who has given the Greeks hope that there is an easy escape from austerity. Whether he can deliver without destroying Greece’s fragile economic recovery and tipping the country into near bankruptcy is an open question.
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