A framed photograph of Che Guevara exhaling a cloud of cigar smoke hangs on a wall in the modest office of Alexis Tsipras in central Athens. It's an easy symbol for those in Europe who see the leftist Greek politician as a dangerous ideologue threatening to drag his country out of the euro and bring drachmageddon not only to Greece but to the rest of the European Union. The demonization bemuses Tsipras, 37, a calm civil engineer who says he's merely a realist. "Greece has been a European and international experiment, and the Greek people have been the guinea pigs," Tsipras tells TIME. "In the last two years we have suffered a social catastrophe. One out of two young Greeks are not only unemployed; they cannot even dream or hope for a better future. The country doesn't export olive oil, oranges, cheese and olives anymore. It exports young scientists. It's a bleeding that has to stop."
Tsipras was an obscure opposition politician just weeks ago, but now he's unnerving the powers that be in the E.U. That is because he and his Syriza party may win enough seats in Parliament on June 17 to form a government--alone or in coalition. The first round of voting, on May 6, led to a stalemate, with no party, not even the two mainstream ones, able to form a ruling coalition. But the surprise was Syriza, which came in with the second greatest number of seats, a blow not only to the ossified political class but also to the austerity politics it had acceded to that was imposed on the debt-ridden nation by the E.U. As one popular Syriza campaign slogan declared, "They decided without us. We'll go on without them."
A member of the Communist Youth of Greece as a teenager, Tsipras executed a canny political metamorphosis in the run-up to the May vote. The leader of a party that includes a range of leftists (such as Trotskyites and Socialists), he became the left-of-center standard bearer for antibailout and antiausterity populism. "It's a paradox to think Greece can stay in the euro zone if the austerity policies continue to be implemented," he says. "These policies were the wrong medicine for the crisis. When there is a patient and you give him medicine and it only makes him worse, it is not logical to insist on giving him a higher dose of the same medicine. If we continue taking this austerity medicine and especially at a higher dose, that's when Greece is going to be forced out of the euro. And when Greece leaves, the whole euro zone will start wobbling." Indeed, a Greek exit could begin a domino exodus of such troubled economies as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy, effectively wrecking the historic enterprise of the E.U.
Tsipras is playing the game shrewdly. He has said he would give up being Prime Minister if that would pave the way for a coalition government that didn't include probailout parties. And even as he says that the status quo qua austerity is untenable, he reiterates his country's commitment to the euro. "It's not our choice for Greece to exit the euro zone, and it's not an option," he says. "Greece's fate is linked to Europe's and vice versa." Again and again, Tsipras insists he is not trying to blow up the euro and Europe. "Europe," he says, "has a special role globally as a stable and secure power between the U.S. and rising superpowers. I believe it would be a tragedy if the euro, the second biggest reserve currency in the world, collapsed."