ATHENS, Greece—Under Alexis Tsipras, Greece slid back into recession, sank deeper into debt and found itself pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. Then after rejecting one painful bailout deal, the radical left leader agreed to a new one with possibly just as harsh terms.
It wouldn’t be surprising to find Greeks calling for his head by now. But the telegenic prime minister is more popular than ever — testament to how his defiance of Europe has struck a chord with a nation fed up with sacrifices imposed from outside.
The 40-year-old has an approval rating of nearly 60 percent, more than 10 points clear of his closest rival — leading to speculation about a possible snap election in the fall. A weekend opinion poll suggested his hard-left Syriza party would win a landslide victory if elections were held today.
Many Greeks like Tsipras’ message of hope — even if his actions may be leading to a harder life.
“People are under tremendous pressure,” said Aleka Tani, who sells robes to Greek Orthodox priests, “and they need to hear something positive.”
Tsipras’ Syriza party was elected in January on a promise to end austerity, forming a coalition with the right-wing, anti-bailout Independent Greeks party — a move that broadened his political influence.
As Greece’s economy tanked under his leadership, Tsipras’ own popularity only grew. And that appeal has not faded despite caving into demands for more austerity last week in exchange for a bailout that kept Greece within the eurozone.
The U-turn at the eurozone summit in Brussels was in many ways baffling. For it came after Tsipras pleaded with Greeks to reject European creditors’ original bailout proposal, in a referendum called by the prime minister himself. Days after a resounding “No” vote on more austerity, Tsipras agreed to a pact that will bring more brutal austerity for years to come.
That might have been political suicide for any other leader.
But Tsipras appears to have won Greek hearts with his tough talk against Europe — and a frank admission in parliament that he had accepted tough terms after making mistakes.
Defending the deal, Tsipras also argued that he had not walked away from the eurozone summit empty-handed. His long-standing demand for some way to ease Greece’s whopping 320 billion euro ($347 billion) national debt is now being discussion by Europe’s policymakers.
Elias Nikolakopoulos, a leading Greek pollster, said that although it is still early to accurately gauge the depth of Tsipras’ popularity, his resilience may be partly due to Greeks seeing him fighting in their corner, doing what he can whether good or bad.
“People say that at least he fought,” Nikolakopoulos said. He added that Tsipras’ portrayal of Greece rejecting the meddling of “foreigners” resonates among many Greeks.
Yet the government’s popularity, analysts argue, will be crucially tested in the fall when tax payers begin to feel the full force of new austerity measures.
“As soon as that impact is felt and the measures begin to bite, Tsipras’ popularity will begin to drop precipitously,” said Panayiotis Ioakimidis, a European policy scholar at the University of Athens.
Still, Tsipras has another important trump card: There are currently few alternatives to his charismatic leadership, as opposition parties remain in transition after losing popular support over the austerity measures they imposed.
“There’s no credible political alternative for the Greek public to turn to,” said Ioakimidis, “for now at least.”
Uncertainty also swirls around the future of Tsipras’ Syriza party, which is now fractured among those who back Tsipras and the bailout deal and more radical elements which reject the pact outright.
And Tani, the Athens outfitter to the priests, said Tsipras benefits largely from what seems like the sole prerequisite for Greek politicians these days to be successful: to look good on television.
In the end, she said, that’s because “they’re all disposable.”