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Greece’s Tsipras locked in unexpectedly tight contest on eve of vote

Having come out on the winning side of two national votes already this year, Alexis Tsipras would seem to have the mandate he needs to govern Greece.

But it has been a spectacularly rough-and-tumble eight months since the 41-year-old leftist was first elected, and with his party torn apart by his decision to accept a $97 billion bailout – and the attached conditions – Tsipras gambled in choosing to go back to the voters for a third time.

Rather than strengthening his hand, the vote on Sunday may bounce him from office. In an unexpectedly close contest, polls show that Tsipras’s Syriza Party is barely edging the center-right party that Greek voters ousted in January.

The prospect of a Tsipras defeat makes the vote a critical moment in the evolution of Europe’s anti-austerity left. Syriza’s January victory ushered in the first radical leftist government in the history of the European Union, and like-minded parties are seeking to make their own advances in upcoming Spanish and Irish elections. This month, the hard-line leftist Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.

If Syriza loses, that momentum could be instantly halted.

Governing has been a humbling experience for Tsipras, who made a humiliating about-face in July by accepting harsh bailout terms from Greece’s European creditors just days after the country’s voters heeded his call to reject a similar set of conditions in a national referendum.

The anti-establishment outsider, who built his career railing against austerity, is now in the unusual position of having to defend a deal that he acknowledges will cause pain to Greeks still suffering from an economic collapse that is unparalleled in the developed world since World War II.

“We negotiated with a gun pointed at our heads,” he told an unusually subdued crowd of Syriza faithful at the party’s final rally on Friday night. “Do you think anyone else could have brought a better deal?”

When Tsipras backed down following a bitter, monthslong standoff with the creditors, Greek banks were on the verge of default and the country faced expulsion from the euro zone for failing to pay its debts. Though Greece’s economic condition remains dire, those immediate threats have passed.

But Tsipras has been hammered throughout the campaign, both by conservative challengers who say he provoked a confrontation with Europe he had no hope of winning and by former allies who blame him for not going all the way.

“People had the courage to say ‘No’ in the referendum. They felt that we could become masters of our own fate,” said Panagiotis Sotiris, a candidate for Popular Unity, a party composed primarily of dissident former Syriza members. “And then there was capitulation and humiliation. Their hope was betrayed.”

Unlike Syriza, Popular Unity advocates that Greece exit the euro and return to the drachma, the country’s currency until 2001. That, Sotiris said, is the only way to avoid the “socially devastating austerity” that Europe imposes as a condition of its loans.

Polls show, however, that most Greeks are unwilling to take that step, and Popular Unity is likely to struggle just to win enough votes to hit the threshold for winning seats in Parliament.

The more serious threat to Tsipras’s hold on power comes from New Democracy. The center-right establishment party was blamed by voters for running up debts and then imposing austerity but has regained favor by presenting itself as the stable alternative to the chaos of Syriza.

At rallies in recent days, New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis called on voters to end “the dangerous Syriza experiment.”

Pot-belled, gray and mustachioed, the 61-year-old Meimarakis stands in stark contrast to the charismatic and youthful Tsipras. But the political veteran has won plaudits for his plain-spokenness and could become the surprise winner if the younger voters who fueled Syriza’s rise stay home and allow the electorate to skew older.

This is Greece’s fifth general election in the past six years, and analysts say pervasive apathy could drive down turnout. That’s especially true because all the major parties agree on the need to accept the bailout deal, even if it means painful pension cuts and tax increases.

But critical differences remain. New Democracy, for instance, argues that Syriza could still put Greece’s place in the euro zone at risk by not implementing the measures it has promised.

“I don’t think we’ve really escaped the threat of ‘Grexit,’ “ said Olga Kefalogianni, a former New Democracy minister who is running for re-election to Parliament. “Tsipras and others in Syriza say, ‘We signed, but we don’t agree.’ So I’m not really confident that someone can implement something they don’t believe in.”

Syriza officials put a different spin on the issue: Even if they can’t stop austerity, they can make it less onerous by implementing it in a way that protects the vulnerable.

“We will try to take advantage of any possible cracks in the agreement in order to ease the consequences,” said Yiannis Bournous, a member of the party’s political secretariat.

As Greece bears the brunt of the new arrivals from Europe’s refugee crisis, Syriza and New Democracy also offer starkly different approaches toward the country’s borders. Kefalogianni blamed the Syriza government for “an open-border policy” that has allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants to enter the country. A New Democracy government would work quickly to regain control, she said.

“I’m not saying it’s an easy issue. But you have to acknowledge there’s a problem,” she said. “The Syriza government treated the state like it was an NGO.”

At his Athens campaign rally, Tsipras cast the refugee issue as part of his broader struggle to create a more humane Europe.

“Will we have the Europe of the man who offers his bread to the refugee, or the man who points his gun at the refugee?” he asked.

Despite a somewhat listless crowd, Tsipras was in a combative mood, thrusting his fists in the air and vowing to continue his struggle against the European establishment, even if that means enduring the occasional setback.

“It doesn’t matter if you get knocked down,” he said. “What matters is if you get back up to fight again.”

Karla Adam in London and Christos Karan in Athens contributed to this report.

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