July 4th, 2012
12:53 PM GMT
(CNN) – The room was filled with a certain buzz and not an empty seat could be found in the grand ballroom. I counted 14 television cameras lined up across the back of the room, and the center table where I was sitting had chief executives representing about a dozen sectors from advertising to power transmission.
A few minutes later a young, dapper man in a cobalt blue suit, matching suede loafers and a crisp white shirt - minus a tie - takes the center seat to my right. All eyes fix their gaze on Greece's rising star, 38 year-old Alexis Tsipras.
With a calm demeanor, but electric smile, the leader of the far left Syriza party and now the official opposition in the Greek parliament greets the host of the conference Daniel Franklin, executive editor of the Economist magazine. He turns and offers the same warm handshake to me and the first public policy address to the Greek business community gets underway.
Moments later, Tsipras takes the stage and wastes little time accusing the newly elected coalition government, made up of leaders from a previous generation, of rolling over in Brussels since it "could not negotiate to obtain oxygen that was given to others without a fight".
Tsipras was referring to the bank recapitalization package outlined at the European Union summit which identified Spain and Italy for direct bonds purchases from the European Central Bank's emergency fund, but noticeably left Greece out of the initial phase. The leader who gained nearly a third of the vote in the second round of elections was just warming up.
"Greece did not gain anything, while Italy and Spain succeeded in cracking the austerity policies," he says, before pausing and tilting his head to the television cameras to deliver the punch line: "When we have a deadly disaster without adequate medicine, the result will always be the same, (heart) failure."
Tsipras skyrocketed to power by promising to tear up the now infamous memorandum that former Prime Minister George Papandreou reluctantly signed with the Troika, made up of the EU, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund. His back against the wall, Papandreou agreed to what are, by any benchmark, draconian austerity measures, including wage and pension cuts of 20-40 percent and a plan - still not delivered on - to slash 150,000 state jobs.
Tsipras is taking a page out of the playbook of the former prime minister's father, Andreas Papandreou, the founder of socialist party PASOK. A passionate firebrand, Papandreou believed in a large state sector and the nationalization of industries from airlines to utilities. At the same time he would constantly tug at the emotions of a very proud, often nationalistic electorate, standing up for example to the Americans on key foreign policy issues.
Papandreou Sr.’s legacy is a lasting one. Greece, according to McKinsey & Company, has the largest state sector in Europe. Nearly one in four work for the government – and not very efficiently, according to the consultancy. It identified a labor productivity gap of 29% versus the EU average, and a whopping 40% versus the U.S. average.
During his speech Tsipras called for an immediate freeze on all salary cuts, to get all Greek citizens at home and abroad "properly registered" to reallocate the tax burden and in collaboration with its southern European partners re-write the memorandum, which he describes as a dead end.
A chief executive sitting to my left at the lunch table says Tsipras is in a sweet spot right now. He can still appeal to his core base - state workers who are members of very powerful unions and disgruntled youth, half of which are without a job - while at the same time tacking to the center of Greek politics to be more palatable to business. He is after all, according to one high profile businessman, a communist at heart who takes inspiration from Chavez of Venezuela and Putin in Russia. The re-packaging has just begun in earnest.
Multiple strategists, commentators and executives I spoke with during the elections and while chairing the Economist Roundtable this week said Tsipras was relieved not to score an outright victory. His party, having garnered only four percent of the vote in 2009, was not prepared for its meteoric rise in popularity and the responsibility of actually governing during a full blown, five year collapse of the economy.
After his formal remarks, Tsipras seeing my notes on the back of the menu card, says in heavily accented english that his speech must have had some value. I managed to have a brief conversation with the opposition leader in between a constant stream of interruptions by businessmen, professors and young followers. They seem to want to mark their cards for the future or genuinely want to touch the man that has captured so much global attention in such a short period of time.
I ask Tsipras how he would navigate negotiations with the Troika if he was already the leader. He says the debt-to-GDP level of 165% is too high - and that getting to 120% by 2020, as outlined by the Troika, is not acceptable. Too much pain on the Greek working class - for very little gain - is the message.
But would Tsipras ask to cut the debt in half to stay in the eurozone and not reduce the size of the state, as he promised during the campaign? The opposition leader adroitly avoids a direct answer and fields another request from an admirer who wants to latch on to this rising star. He is, it seems, determined to take measured steps and plant his feet firmly on the ground in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, and not to be a shooting star that flames out before his time.
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