When Alexis Tsipras called for snap elections in August after resigning as prime minister, he reckoned on a sure victory for his party, Syriza, even possibly an absolute majority.
In the wake of his hardball negotiations with Greece’s creditors, the leftist leader was riding an unparalleled wave of popularity, with polls giving him a 70 percent approval rating. In the few days before calling the elections, his government had agreed on an €86 billion ($98 billion) bailout from the European Union and International Monetary fund, the third huge handout the country has received since 2008.
The financial rescue was needed to prevent Greece from going bankrupt and leaving the euro zone. A so-called “Grexit” was seen as a risk to the stability of the 19-nation single currency region. The bailout enabled Greece, which has a debt pile of almost 200 percent of economic output, to pay its bills, but forced the country to push through unpopular reforms to revive its ailing economy.
Sunday’s elections, however, could destabilize the Mediterranean country again, because pollsters are reporting a neck-and-neck race between Mr. Tsipras and his main rival, Evangelos Meimarakis, leader of the conservative New Democracy party.
Earlier in the week, when the two opponents met in a television debate, no clear winner emerged.
The former prime minister knows that on Sunday every vote counts and is pulling out all of the stops. “The Greek people now have their say,” he said at a gathering in Arta. “They will decide who will be prime minister – not the oligarchs in their dark backrooms and the palaces of Europe.”
Magda Tsakalea applauded so enthusiastically that the small bouquet of flowers she had brought for Mr. Tsipras almost fell out of her hands. She also had a photo of him in her purse, hoping to get an autograph.
“He is Greece’s only hope,” Ms. Tsakalea said, her eyes welling. The 42-year-old has been unemployed since the supermarket where she worked closed two years ago because of the country’s financial crisis. She now hopes for a new job under a Tsipras government, “preferably in public service,” she said.
“The people decide who will be prime minister – not the oligarchs in their dark backrooms and the palaces of Europe.”
Mr. Meimarakis has been attacking the former prime minister head on in the run up to the elections. He said that in his first seven months as head of government, Mr. Tsipras “made so many errors that it is hard to find a correct decision.”
But the two men have shown no outward animosity towards each other.
At a recent encounter at Heraklion airport in Crete, the pair chatted excitedly and made some jokes. Photographers even documented the hint of a hug, as the two returned to a backroom.
Shortly after, rumors of a grand coalition emerged in the media, and Mr. Meimarakis has done nothing to stifle them.“I am prepared for collaboration,” he told reporters.
And that is what the majority of Greeks appear to want: Seven in ten told pollsters they want a diversified government of national unity to solve the country’s problems.
With his simple, folksy and slightly brash style, Mr. Meimarakis is well-received by many Greeks. He sounds jovial and seems upfront.
But the conservative challenger doesn’t approach the charismatic Mr. Tsipras when it comes to rhetoric. Half bald, and with a gray mustache, Mr. Meimarakis also looks much older.
The 61-year-old is an old-school career politician who has been a party member for 41 years and in parliament for 26 years.
Mr. Tsipras prefers to continue working together with the far-right Independent Greeks. But they may fail on Sunday to break the 3-percent threshold for parliamentary representation.
With his simple, folksy and slightly brash style, Mr. Meimarakis is well-received by many Greeks.
If Mr. Tsipras wins, he may not have many options. He could try to win over the Socialist Movement party, PASOK, and the center-left party Potami, as partners.
But in the end, an alliance with the conservatives might be the only solution. Mr. Tsipras has ruled out a Greek grand coalition, calling such an alliance “unnatural.”
Most Greeks and European leaders agree the country is in urgent need of a government able to negotiate and willing to make badly needed reforms. The country risks a payment default in December if a new reform bottleneck delays the payment of assistance loans.
Theodoros Fessas, the head of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, SEV, called for an “historic compromise.”
“Greece has this one, final chance to get its footing again and to free itself from this dangerous downward spiral in recession, which threatens to turn the country into an economic and social wasteland,” he said.
Experts agree if the Greeks put Tsipras and Syriza in the opposition, it could be a political fiasco and cause a great social upheavel.
Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Athens. To contact the author: email@example.com