By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Alexis Tsipras was elected in January on a far-left platform, promising Greeks an end to five years of financial pain.
But as prime minister, Tsipras ended up performing the biggest political U-turn of recent European history, agreeing to more spending cuts, tax rises and privatisations. Most lawmakers from the hard-left core of his Syriza party have quit in anger.
Now, after seven rollercoaster months at the helm, Tsipras, 41, is asking voters for a second chance, in a tightly-fought election to decide who will lead Greece's angry and impoverished population through its third international bailout programme.
For Sunday's vote, the telegenic Tsipras has moved to the centre-ground to buttress his support, saying he will implement the bailout while also introducing measures to cushion the impact of austerity.
"Syriza needs to strike a balance between its traditional left values and managing the burden of the bailout," said a senior party official, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue within the party.
It will not be easy. His main election rival, the leader of the conservative New Democracy party, Vangelis Meimarakis, has teased him over his political transformation, saying in a recent debate: "I don't recognise (Tsipras) anymore."
Whoever forms Greece's next government will have limited policy options because the terms of the bailout signed in August forces Athens to introduce pension reforms, oversee the recapitalisation of banks and to increase taxes.
Both Syriza and New Democracy say publicly they will stick to the overall programme, though they differ on specifics. New Democracy wants tax incentives to attract investors, while Syriza sees taxes as a tool to redistribute wealth.
A poll conducted by Alco and published on Thursday put support for Syriza at 25.3 percent, just ahead of the centre-right New Democracy on 25 percent. Far-right Golden Dawn ranked third with 6.2 percent. [ID:nA8S10L01B]
People close to Tsipras say he has been deeply affected by the events of the past few months. Had Tsipras imagined he would have capitulated to the creditors' demands in August, they say, he would not have led Greece through the difficult experience of capital controls. The controls left pensioners for weeks almost having to beg for their money.
Tsipras' main defence is simple: Greeks want to stay in the euro, a view still endorsed by all opinion polls.
He has also received support from other leftist parties around Europe. This week, Tania Gonzales Penas, lawmaker for Spain's Podemos party, wished Tsipras well, saying: "Since they took office, Syriza has been at all times on the side of its people … it's a tough fight indeed."
In power, Tsipras tried to unshackle Greece from the measures imposed by its international lenders.
In early July, as Greece was starved of funds and struggling to pay the salaries and pensions of its public servants, Tsipras called a referendum, saying it was for Greeks to decide whether they wanted to shoulder more of the "humiliation and suffering" of another bailout. Voters gave a resounding no.
The referendum result, a sharp rebuff to Europe's pro-austerity camp led by Germany, was seen as reinvigorating the Tsipras team in their negotiations with Greece's creditors.
But by mid-August, with Greece on the verge of bankruptcy and Germany's finance ministry suggesting it may have to quit the euro, Tsipras caved in. He secured a third bailout worth 86 billion euros in return for more pension cuts and a privatisation fund – terms that for months he had argued were unthinkable.
Weakened within his own party, Tsipras resigned in order to force a snap election and, he hopes, win a stronger – and this time pro-bailout – mandate from voters. His party has split in two, with a breakaway far-left faction opposed to the new bailout now polling only around 3.5 percent.
But the 15 percent of Greeks who say they have not yet decided how to vote on Sunday include many former Syriza supporters.
To hold onto them, Tsipras has reverted to the kind of left-wing rhetoric that catapulted him to victory in January. The bailout agreement was a "coup and the product of unprecedented blackmail", reads the preamble to Syriza's new election manifesto released this week.
Tsipras has pledged to seek relief on Greece's debt – which many in Europe argue is necessary but faces stiff opposition from Germany. Tsipras also says he would negotiate over what his party calls a "grey area" of labour and pension reform to help alleviate the economic pain for Greeks.
Bloodied but unbowed, he insists: "We are moving forward."
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Gareth Jones)