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Tsipras still has the edge in pro-euro Greece, say analysts


Alexis Tsipras SyrizaWith just three weeks to go before Greece’s snap elections, analysts say charismatic ex-premier Alexis Tsipras remains popular with an electorate determined to stay in the euro — even if it means more painful austerity.

Opinion polls show Tsipras in first place for the September 20 vote, with his far-left Syriza party ahead of its main rivals, the New Democracy conservatives, by between 1 and 3.5 points.

Tsipras quit on August 20 — triggering the early election — after his decision to sign Greece up for a third huge international bailout sparked a major rebellion within his own party, leaving him barely able to govern.

Syriza had stormed to power in January promising an end to the steep spending cuts and tax rises demanded by Athens’ creditors in exchange for two previous bailouts.

It was music to the ears of Greek voters exhausted by years of economic hardship. But then Tsipras made an abrupt U-turn, agreeing to more tough reforms in exchange for a new 86-billion-euro ($96-billion) rescue package.

For the Syriza rebels, the deal represents an unacceptable sacrifice of principles for a party elected to bring an end to austerity.

But analysts say Greeks have largely accepted Tsipras’ argument that it is the only way to stop Greece from defaulting on its massive debts, crashing out of the eurozone, and tumbling into the economic unknown.

“Tsipras’ success is that he represents pro-European sentiment amongst Greeks,” political scientist Georges Sefertzis told AFP.

A young leader at 41, he remains Greece’s most popular politician, with a 29.5 percent approval rate ahead of New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis on 26 percent.

– Painful sacrifices –

During the months of bitter bailout negotiations with its creditors — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — Tsipras’ government frequently wielded threats of a Greek exit from the eurozone, or “Grexit”, if a deal could not be met.

No one knew what that would have looked like, but the chances are it would have been chaotic — and Greeks, it seems, are still determined not to find out.

A poll by Metron Analysis published Saturday found 79 percent wanted to stay in the eurozone — and a majority, 55 percent, thought Tsipras was right to accept the bailout deal.

Many seem resigned to the idea that more painful sacrifices — including tax rises and pension cuts — are necessary if Greece is to get its much-needed bailout cash and stay in the eurozone.

For political scientist Georges Contogeorgis, Tsipras’ ratings remain relatively high because the latest austerity measures have yet to really bite.

“For the moment Greeks are not really feeling the effects of the new (bailout),” Contogeorgis said. “That’s why Tsipras has managed to hang on to the popularity he has in reserve.”

His personal appeal is another factor, noted Sefertzis.

“Tsipras is rather charismatic. He is young, he is charming,” he said.

“Besides, he can cast himself as someone who was ultimately forced to bend to the Europeans, but did what he could.”

Kicking off his electoral campaign on Saturday, Tsipras insisted that he had not “surrendered” but was ready to “stand up and continue to fight battles” for Greeks.

Nevertheless, Contogeorgis pointed out that the Syriza leader has lost “half of his popularity” since his election in January, when his party won 36.3 percent of the vote — far ahead of New Democracy on 27.8 percent.

Syriza’s eight months in power have been far from easy, with banks forced to shut to avert a catastrophic bank run, and Greeks struggling under capital controls, including limits on withdrawals from ATMs.

And it remains to be seen how much of an impact the Syriza rebels — at least 25 of whom have split off to form a new party, Popular Unity — could have on the vote. Opinion polls suggest they could manage to make it into parliament.

Their leader Panagiotis Lafazanis, a former communist who believes Greece could happily exist outside the euro, enjoys “a big influence within Syriza”, according to Sefertzis.

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