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article imageEmbattled Tsipras seeks to steady ship after fire tragedy

By John HADOULIS (AFP)     Aug 18, 2018 in World

The summer was meant to have been a chance for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to bask in the success of Greece finally turning the page on the bailout era.

But the wildfires outside the capital Athens that killed nearly one hundred people also laid waste to a hoped-for political rebound ahead of elections due next year.

As recently as June, Tsipras was tapping into a sense of optimism about Greece putting behind it nearly a decade of economic crisis as its third international bailout ends on August 20.

"Day by day, uncertainty will be replaced by stability. Danger will be replaced by security and safety," a beaming Tsipras told political allies and friends at a reception at the majestic Zappeio pavilion in Athens.

But within a month, jubilation came crashing down as scores died in wildfires near Athens, torching both Tsipras' boyish appeal and possibly his government's legacy too.

"(This) is the most difficult moment from the time we took over the government," Tsipras' telecoms minister and close advisor Nikos Pappas acknowledged earlier this month.

Anger at Greece's deadliest fire disaster has mixed with disbelief as a combination of tactical errors by the fire brigade and police on July 23 trapped hundreds of vacationers at the coastal resort of Mati near the capital.

The blow came just as Tsipras was trying to bounce back from months of poor ratings.

While polls have not always proved reliable in recent electoral contests, Tsipras' Syriza party was trailing the conservative New Democracy party by up to 14 points even before the fire tragedy.

- 'Time to go' -

Tsipras' "government is worn out, it is morally discredited and its managerial shortcomings have been exposed," says Thanassis Diamantopoulos, politics professor at Panteion University in Athens.

"I think we're reaching the point where people who were kind of middle-of-the-road and had an open mind are very angry with Syriza now," added Nikos Konstandaras, a veteran columnist for liberal daily Kathimerini.

"And I think you're going to be getting a lot of people saying 'anybody but them, let's get them out," Konstandaras said.

The opposition has also stepped up its attacks on Tsipras.

"It's time for him to go," New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Athens Voice portal earlier this month.

But elections are not due until September 2019, although Tsipras could call them early, possibly to coincide with European and local elections in May.

But the government might not last that long in office.

His coalition partner Panos Kammenos, head of the nationalist Independent Greeks party, has threatened to leave the government over a disputed name deal with neighbouring Macedonia.

Highly controversial, particularly in Greece's northern region of Macedonia, the deal foresees the neighbouring state renaming itself North Macedonia after 27 years of diplomatic deadlock.

If the Macedonians approve the deal in a September referendum, Greece's parliament must ratify it in early 2019.

How Tsipras will continue to govern at that point if Kammenos defects is anyone's guess.

- Skills to fight back -

The premier is likely to stick to the issues which helped him to office, the economy and corruption.

Tsipras insists he has done more than any recent leader to combat poverty, and is expected to announce a fresh batch of low-income benefits in September.

"Tsipras has the skills to articulate a vision and to present the work of his government in a way that can win him votes," said Vassilis Monastiriotis, associate professor of political economy at the London School of Economics' European Institute.

"The fact that the adjustment programme was concluded should be seen a great achievement in itself: many previous governments tried and failed, so whoever managed to close the programme deserves credit," he said.

Tsipras has also consistently hammered New Democracy -- which ruled the country for 15 out of the last 30 years -- on corruption and economic mismanagement issues.

Earlier this month, the health ministry said it had found a 90-million-euro ($100 million) hole at the state disease watchdog during a seven-year period of conservative and socialist governments.

"It is possible that Tsipras may be able to turn it around, although this remains the least likely scenario," said Monastiriotis.

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