The Greek Rebel Set to Become Prime Minister

Opposition leader and head of radical leftist Syriza party Alexis Tsipras waves at supporters during a campaign rally in central Athens, January 22, 2015. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

It's eleven at night, on 12 January, and Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old leader of the radical left-wing Syriza party, is being interviewed live on Greek TV. Speaking with the confidence of a man who the polls say will give him a lead of at least 3.5% over the incumbent conservative party, New Democracy, he looks like he is giving his first prime ministerial interview, two weeks before the actual election date on the 25 January.

"We have sacrificed enough. [Stay within the] Euro with justice, solidarity and democracy. It's what we deserve and what we'll demand . . . There is no 'alternatively', there is no 'other way,'" he says. That night, 650,000 people watched the interview, at a time when when most in Greece have lost their appetite for grandstanding politicians. Two days later, Tsipras took questions on Twitter, making #AskTsipras the number one trending hashtag in Greece and the third globally.

No longer the anti-Euro maverick introduced to the mainstream when Syriza was a marginal political force, Tsipras is promising to end austerity and renegotiate Greece's massive debt – now standing at more than 170% of the country's GDP – while staying within the Eurozone. More boldly still, he promises to go to war with Greek oligarchs, an intention indicative of the extend of his ambition to break with traditional politicking in this corruption-ridden country.

For those who remember his early days at the helm of a tiny party that hardly won 4,6% of the vote, the contrast between Tsipras' past and his current image, is huge. When the state-educated son of an engineer took over Syriza (then Synaspismos) in 2006, he was the youngest political leader in the country.

Alexis Tsipras
Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza. Getty

In 2013, when I interviewed him in the back of a car for the New Statesman – as he crossed London with his youngest son on his lap on the way to a Tottenham Hotspur match – he came across as supremely sure of himself. He had just delivered two major talks in the space of a week and the left-wing British press had treated him with reverence.

Now, in 2015, he is becoming the face of the European left – and yet it's surprising how little is known about him. Born in 1978, he is married to his high-school sweetheart and as the father of two children he still tries to walk them to school every morning. The family lives in downtown Athens in an area many would consider rough – miles away from the sons and daughters of political dynasties that have reigned over Greek political life in the past seven decades.

His first steps in Greek political life were taken early on, during the wave of school occupations rocking Greece in the early 1990s. Then a longhaired student and member of the communist party youth, Tsipras represented a group of schools and soon became adept at playing politics.

He joined the Synaspismos youth movement after a split in the Communist party and was the leader of the barely 500-strong group from 1999 and until 2003. But his star really began to shine when he ran for mayor of Athens in 2006, winning 10% of the vote. Alekos Alavanos, then leader of the party, hand-picked him as his successor, and in 2008 he was elected by party-members as the leader of Synaspismos with a convincing 70%. He wasn't actually elected as an MP until a year later, after the 2009 elections.

Tsipras and Iglesias
Alexis Tsipras and Spanish Podemos party Secretary General Pablo Iglesias wave to supporters following a campaign rally in central Athens January 22, 2015. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Within three turbulent years, the 35-year-old took what had by now become Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) from 4,6% in 2009 to 26,7% in 2012 and transformed the party into the de-facto opposition.

But today there is another dimension to Tsiprashis – his links to Spain's Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias. Dubbed "Tsiglesias" by Bloomberg's Joe Weisenthal, the duo is heralded as the new face of the European Left, with Podemos activists saying that Tsipras is treated like a hero when he visits Spain.

Tsipras's anti-austerity policy calls for a 12 million Euro increase in social spending, putting Greece on collision course with the European Union. But opinion polls show that some 75 % of Greeks want the country to stay within the single currency. At the time of writing, a likely result in the ballot is that no party will win an overall majority. Tsipras publicly has ruled out a ­co­alition with the fast-rising centre left To Potami party but a power-sharing deal would give Syriza's energetic leader a valid reason to tone down his radical proposals and avoid an outright conflict with the European Union.