VOLOS, Greece (Reuters) - Alexis Tsipras says Greece's political elite are bluffing when they say harsh austerity cuts are required to keep the country in the euro zone. And he wants Greek voters to call them on it.
With Greece due to vote on May 6, the young leader of the Left Coalition party is urging Greeks to vote out austerity - and the two pro-bailout parties imposing it - arguing Europe cannot afford to kick Greece out of the monetary union.
"It's a pseudo-dilemma, a fabricated myth, that our future in the euro is at risk. It is blackmail by pro-bailout parties, a tool to pressure people to accept measures that bring misery," he told Reuters in this port city in central Greece.
"If any country left the euro under the pressure of markets, then as a herd they would seek the next one to speculate on. The cost for the zone, for Germany, would be huge," he said.
The rhetoric may find little sympathy among Greece's international lenders, but it is winning him voters at home. The 38-year-old leftist's party is one of four vying for third place in national elections on May 6.
Promising to freeze payments to creditors and renegotiate austerity policies included in Greece's latest rescue package, Tsipras' party is expected to take 9 to 13 percent of the vote.
The rise of anti-bailout parties like the Left Coalition is being watched with nervousness by European leaders and the IMF, who fear they could prevent the country's biggest parties from getting enough support to forge a pro-bailout coalition.
The two major parties backing the bailout, the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK, are seen as the only viable option to push through reforms demanded by foreign lenders in return for aid to avoid bankruptcy.
But Tsipras is appealing to parties of the left to bury their differences and band together to topple the two major parties, the main players in Greek politics since 1974.
So far there have been no takers, but he says the results on election night could change that.
"If on May 7 there is a potential to form a parliamentary majority by parties of the Left - the communist KKE, the Democratic Left and the Ecology Greens - it will be very hard for them to say no despite their resistance now," Tsipras said.
The KKE has already ruled out any such cooperation.
The last published polls before an April 20 cutoff showed PASOK and New Democracy combined were polling at 33.6 to 44 percent, suggesting they should eke out a wafer-thin majority in the 300-seat house under the Greek voting system.
But the loss of any further support would leave the political landscape in disarray and leave the left parties in a position of strength.
The leftist anti-bailout parties -- KKE, the Democratic Left and Tsipras's Left Coalition -- together are expected to take between 21.2 to 33.5 percent of the vote.
BULGARIAN WAGES, BRUSSELS PRICES
A civil engineer by training and the country's youngest political leader, Tsipras emerged on the political scene in 2006 when he scored third place in the Athens mayoral race.
Born four days after the fall of Greece's military dictatorship in July 1974, he became leader of the Left Coalition in 2008 and was elected to parliament in 2009. The party was founded in 1992 after splintering from a leftist group that included the KKE.
Tsipras, who shuns neck-ties and likes to get around on his motorcycle, plays hardball in parliament with tough anti-austerity rhetoric. His party has been often blamed by the socialists for inciting violent protests.
"The dilemma is whether we continue this destructive policy of austerity that brings poverty or we put an end to it. They want to turn Greece into a country with wages at Bulgarian levels and prices at Brussels levels," he told the Volos rally.
In Volos, an industrial centre and the country's third- largest port - sitting at the foot of Mount Pelion, land of the half-horse, half-human Centaurs in Greek mythology - support for the Left Coalition is growing, locals said.
Tsipras's call for an end to austerity resonates with students at the local university. Along the port - an area lined with fish tavernas, cafes and docked sailboats - posters call for an "overthrow in Greece, a message to Europe."
Architecture student and party supporter Costas Vichos, 24, said in Volos PASOK voters are turning to the Left Coalition.
"There is high unemployment, industrial activity is declining and businesses are closing. I don't want to have to move abroad to get a job when I graduate," he said. "Things must change, the bailout led to a vicious circle."
Angry voters want to punish the big parties on May 6, but want the country to stay in the euro zone just as much. Tsipras says wanting the euro without austerity is not a contradiction.
Holding a white rose before a crowd of about 1,500 at the port's promenade, Tsipras urged them to turn their anger into a confidence vote for the left and unseat the pro-bailout parties.
"There are red lines, austerity cannot be allowed to destroy the country," he said. "If these policies continue Europe will be led to a dead end. History is knocking at our door, it's time for the big overthrow."