By Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS (Reuters) - Alexis Tsipras has presided over a near-death experience for the Greek financial system and performed a U-turn on resisting austerity. And yet the prime minister bestrides his nation's politics, with no serious challenger in sight.
With his ministers openly discussing the possibility of a snap election, Tsipras seems nearly ready to exploit his enduring popularity in Greece and further consolidate his position after seven turbulent months in office.
Tsipras's one tangible achievement has been to seal a new bailout deal for Greece, but on terms so onerous that part of his radical left Syriza party is threatening to walk out.
Nevertheless, Greeks like a fighter and Syriza voters still admire how he fought the euro zone and IMF for a better deal, even though he lost.
Above all, they regard the handsome and charismatic 41-year-old as an untainted leader of a country with a sorry history of corruption that was close to bankruptcy for years.
"Tsipras is the most popular politician right now. He is young and fresh, and he's never been involved in scandals," said Ilias Tiganis, a 50-year-old kiosk owner in central Athens. "People don't forget that the previous governments and opposition parties brought the country to this situation."
Any hesitation in calling an election could be risky for Tsipras, who won power in January with much experience of protest politics and none of running a country.
Two momentous decisions under his leadership - both taken as disaster beckoned - are likely to start hurting his leftist supporters in the next few months, as if they haven't suffered enough during five years of economic crisis.
At the end of June his government closed the banks for three weeks, imposing capital controls as Greece headed to the brink of bankruptcy while he tried to extract concessions from the creditors who refused to offer them.
While this narrowly saved the financial system from collapse, businesses are struggling with the strict curbs on cash withdrawals and payments abroad that remain. Unemployment is still at 25 percent, and the capital controls - which are likely to remain until the banks are recapitalized later this year - could cost yet more jobs.
Then Tsipras caved in to the creditors - ditching his election promises to reverse austerity policies imposed under Greece's first two bailouts - to avoid a banking collapse and euro exit. Instead he accepted more spending and pension cuts, tax increases and economic reforms which will soon start hurting Greeks, all to secure 86 billion euros in bailout loans.
BLAMING THE EUROPEANS
Tsipras is unapologetic. "My conscience is clear," he told parliament before it approved the bailout deal on Friday. "It is the best we could achieve under the current balance of power in Europe, under conditions of economic and financial asphyxiation imposed upon us."
His supporters believe him. "Syriza voters think that Tsipras put up a real fight in the euro zone and got the best he could," said Thomas Gerakis, a political analyst and head of the Marc polling company. "They blame euro zone policymakers for the new austerity package more than Tsipras."
Exactly how popular Tsipras remains is unclear. A Metron Analysis poll released on July 24 showed 61 percent had a positive view of his performance. It also put support for Syriza at 33.6 percent, making it by far the most popular party, but not enough to govern without seeking a coalition partner.
After that the trail goes cold. As it is high summer in Greece, many voters are away at the beach or family homes in the country and pollsters say mustering a representative sample is nearly impossible until they all return later this month.
To fulfill his promises to the creditors, Tsipras needs a parliamentary majority to pass the necessary legislation. But nearly a third of Syriza lawmakers have rebelled, and the bailout bill passed on Friday only with support from opposition parties, which said they wanted to save Greece from ruin.
That support is unlikely to continue. Three ministers raised the possibility on Monday that Tsipras will call a parliamentary confidence vote, probably leading to a snap election. One said Syriza would aim to achieve a majority, something it narrowly failed to secure in January.
But if he fails to move quickly, the risk is his popularity will slip. "The real test for the Tsipras government will be in a few months when people start feeling the effects of the implementation of the new measures," said Gerakis.
Tsipras appears ready to ditch the bailout objectors from his party, allowing Syriza to occupy the left-of-center ground vacated by the near demise of the PASOK socialist party.
Outside Syriza, Tsipras seems to have no rivals. PASOK, which negotiated Greece's first bailout in 2010, now has only 13 members of the 300-seat parliament. The conservative New Democracy party has only an interim leader after former prime minister Antonis Samaras quit as party chief in July after Greeks overwhelmingly supported Tsipras's call to reject an EU bailout at a referendum.
Some Greeks, hardened by the long crisis, accept Tsipras has political skills but doubt his credentials as a national leader. "He is better at lying than the others," said Fotis Mamoglou, a 64-year-old jeweler. "He speaks to the problems that people are facing, but he also uses them to elevate himself."
Through all the crises and U-turns, Tsipras has still kept hope alive among many Greeks after years of hardship.
Importantly, the former Communist comes from a culture far removed from PASOK and New Democracy, which took turns to rule Greece for almost four decades. "The rest of the parties had people that have been involved in scandals," said Tiganis. "They all have skeletons in their closets."
(additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis; writing by David Stamp; editing by Giles Elgood)