One hails from the old world of Greek bourgeois society, and is a Harvard business school graduate with stridently conservative views. The other, state-educated and middle class, was raised in the decidedly newer world of rough-and-tumble leftist politics.
The stark differences between Antonis Samaras, Greece’s prime minister, and Alexis Tsipras, the man who wants his job, will to great degree define the contours of the battle ground as the country heads to snap polls on 25 January. It is a clash whose outcome will affect Europe, too.
“Ultimately the election will boil down to a highly polarised choice between these two men,” said Ilias Nikolakopoulos, a political science professor at Athens University and leading pollster. “And, of course, everything their parties represent.”
Support for the patrician Samaras is viewed as a vote for stability. International backing for the 63-year-old, a once-vehement opponent of austerity, has soared since his pro-business New Democracy party assumed power as the dominant force in a fragile coalition in June 2012. Both markets and foreign lenders, who have thrown the debt-crippled country a lifeline of €240bn (£188bn), see him as the best guarantor of Athens’ future in the eurozone and, by extension, the EU.
Following parliament’s dissolution last week in the wake of an abortive attempt to elect a new head of state by the 300-seat House – a failure that under Greek law automatically triggers early elections – Samaras has played up the euro exit dangers of supporting Tsipras’s radical left Syriza party. An alliance of communists, Maoists, socialists, Trotskyists and greens, Syriza has made writing off Greece’s debt, and cancelling the austerity measures agreed in exchange for funds from the EU and IMF, its overriding mantra. Both are anathema to creditors.
Last week, as polls continued to indicate a healthy, if narrowing, lead for the neo Marxists, Samaras told Greeks that endorsement of the rebels would be tantamount to allowing their nation to crash on the rocks of insolvency and be ejected from the single currency.
Brussels’ newly installed EU president, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently echoed that view, proclaiming with forceful self-confidence that he did not think Tsipras was “the right man for Greece”.
But while the workaholic Samaras is credited with putting Athens on a path of tentative economic recovery – after its worst recession on recordGreece posted a primary surplus last year – he is also associated with biting austerity. And while polls have persistently portrayed him as being more suitable for the role of prime minister, he is nevertheless part of the traditional ruling class that is perceived to have ruined Greece.
Tsipras, who turned 40 last year, has ridden high on accusations that it is the rotten political establishment – epitomised by New Democracy and its partner, the socialist Pasok – that has caused the country’s great economic and social crisis.
Once mocked as a marginal non-conformist with a penchant for funky hairstyles, the young firebrand is seen, even by his enemies, as a talented politician with extraordinary ambition. The son of a civil engineer, who lives in a rented apartment in a run-down district of Athens with his high-school sweetheart and two young children, Tsipras belongs to a generation untainted by power.
In an election that will almost certainly be as vicious as it is short, he can tap into the deep wells of discontent elicited by brutal belt-tightening over the last five years. Much of Syriza’s support comes from the young and unemployed. For the three million Greeks now facing poverty, placating creditors means much less than erasing the painful conditions attached to its bailouts.
Since quadrupling Syriza’s popularity in 2012, the charismatic politician has worked hard to galvanise opinion in Europe, building ties with other far-left populist parties and improving his spoken English. Unlike Samaras, who attended Athens College, Greece’s most famous private school, and is fluent in a range of foreign languages, Tsipras, who studied civil engineering in Athens, did not have such skills.
“While Samaras represents Greece’s traditional ruling class, Tsipras is the new kid on the block who is learning fast,” said Nikolakopoulos, who has ties with the left. “He has a lot of dynamism and on a European scale is seen as offering something new.”
Tsipras speaks openly of experiencing the ills that have tormented Greek society: cronyism, corruption, the lack of meritocracy.
For his fans, who increasingly include members of Greece’s decimated middle class, he is a visionary who has dared to tackle the self-defeating policies perpetuated by the dark heart of capitalist power. This week he declared that a Syriza victory would bring hope and with it “the decisive end of national humiliation and humanitarian crisis”.
But in a country still blighted by the fault lines of a bloody left-right civil war, Tsipras is also seen as a dangerous ideologue.
As the election campaign intensifies it is that image Samaras will seek to convey. Few believe Syriza will not emerge as the first party on 25 January, although in a climate of deepening fear it remains doubtful whether it will be able to muster an outright majority. That makes smaller parties – including a new movement launched by the former premier, George Papandreou – potential kingmakers in any future government. Yet what is certain is that when voting day comes, the personalities of two very different men will have played a significant role in charting the course of a country in one of its most crucial hours.