Greece’s left-wing opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, stepping down after crushing election defeat

Greece’s firebrand opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, announced his decision Thursday to step down as leader of the left-wing Syriza party, days after a crushing general election defeat.
Greece’s firebrand opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, announced his decision Thursday to step down as leader of the left-wing Syriza party, days after a crushing general election defeat.

Tsipras, 48, served as Greece’s prime minister from 2015 to 2019 during politically tumultuous years as the country struggled to remain in the euro zone and end a series of international bailouts.

“I have therefore decided to propose the election of a new leadership by the members of the party ... Of course I will not be a candidate,” Tsipras said in a televised address.

“I make no secret of the fact that this is a painful decision ... I don’t take hasty decisions. I put them under my pillow and torture myself with them first,” he added.

In Sunday’s general election, Tsipras’ left-wing Syriza party received just under 18% of the vote — losing almost half its support over the past four years — while Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ winning New Democracy party topped 40%.

“The party must take difficult and courageous decisions, which are called upon to serve a new vision. This obviously concerns me too,” Tsipras said.

Heading the Syriza since 2012, Tsipras forged a more cohesive party, taking it from a small political group to general election victory in 2015 on a pledge to push back on harsh austerity measures demanded by bailout lenders from other euro zone members and the International Monetary Fund. The effort proved unsuccessful and Greece was given a third bailout later that year to avoid bankruptcy and an exit from the shared euro currency. He eased his combative stance toward the European Commission and eventually forged closed ties with European leaders, including former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was widely praised by Western allies for finalizing an agreement with North Macedonia that ushered Greece’s neighbor into NATO and advanced its effort to join the European Union.

Although regarded as a skillful politician, Tsipras’ main opponent said he hoped the opposition leader’s departure would improve the quality of political debate.

“I think decision was to be expected,” Greece’s conservative Prime Minister Mitsotakis said while attending a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels. “Syriza, both in government and in opposition, was a party characterized by toxicity, divisive rhetoric and with striking inefficiency,” Mitsotakis said. “Political parties must unite citizens and propose realistic, cost-effective and workable solutions to people’s problems — a road Syriza has never taken. I sincerely hope it does now.”

Tsipras is expected to stay on as leader for several weeks until his successor is elected by the party’s rank-an-file membership. No prominent members of the party has publicly called on Tsipras to step down after the election defeat, though Euclid Tsakalotos, a former Syriza finance minister, had urged him to reflect on the results and “take the necessary actions.” Effie Achtsioglou, a 38-year-old former social security minister, has received support from a section of the party to seek a leadership role but has not publicly discussed her plans. Commentators blamed Syriza’s poor election result on the party’s largely-negative campaign, the resurgence of the traditionally-strong Socialist party Pasok, and the appearance of splinter parties headed by Tsipras’s former allies, including former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. Largely rooted in fierce political confrontations during the 2010-2018 international bailouts, Syriza and the Socialists have been unable reach any agreement on potential collaboration, despite support from some senior members in both parties.