* Alexis Tsipras vows to tear up terms of bailout
* Youthful leftist in high-stakes game of chicken with Europe
* Face of change or untested ideologue?
ATHENS, June 15 (Reuters) - Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras, “enfant terrible” of Europe’s debt crisis, cut his political teeth as a student protest leader in the 1990s and is now championing a rebellion that could end up sinking the single currency.
His vow to tear up the terms of an international bailout deal keeping debt-ridden Greece afloat has put him and his SYRIZA party within a few votes of government in a knife-edge election on Sunday in which the stakes could not be higher.
The strategy amounts to a game of chicken.
Tsipras says Europe’s lenders will not pull the plug on Greece for fear of the ripple effect of a Greek exit from the euro, so they will be forced to scrap the bitterly unpopular austerity measures demanded of Athens and which have driven the country into a spiral of recession.
“The memorandum of bankruptcy will belong to the past on Monday,” Tsipras told thousands of flag-waving supporters on Thursday in the capital’s Omonoia square, once one of the ornaments of central Athens but now grimy and scarred by crime and poverty.
“Today you made Omonoia the most beautiful square in Athens and you sent a message of victory inside and outside the country: Brussels expect us, we are coming on Monday to negotiate over people’s rights, to cancel the bailout,” he said.
It is a high-risk strategy that detractors say smacks of political inexperience and a short, comfortable life spent mainly on Greece’s anti-establishment fringe.
Born into a middle-class family with a small building business, Tsipras has a post-graduate degree in engineering but worked only briefly in construction before turning to full-time politics.
He dabbled while at university as a member of the Communist party’s youth wing and as a student protest leader in the 1990s, before joining the SYRIZA coalition of 12 radical leftist groups, including environmentalists and human rights activists.
Tsipras lost an election for mayor of Athens in 2006, but the race lifted him into the party’s top ranks and in 2008, his mentor and then SYRIZA leader Alekos Alavanos virtually handed him the leadership at the age of 33.
Now 37, spurning suit ties and stuffy formality, Tsipras represents a refreshing change for many Greeks fed up with a close-knit political establishment that has run the country into the ground.
To Greece’s euro zone partners, he is an untested ideologue who lacks the acumen to run a country, let alone steer it through a crisis that threatens financial calamity.
“So what if he doesn’t have the experience?” said SYRIZA deputy Panagiotis Kouroublis. “If he can run a party, he can run a country. Greece has suffered from people who promised one thing and did another.”
Tsipras has promised to nationalise banks, stop privatisations and freeze the austerity measures that his establishment rivals - the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK - agreed to in February as the price of a 130 billion euro EU/IMF bailout package.
Greeks rebelled in the streets the night the measures were adopted, burning banks and shops. Then the country held an election on May 6, and New Democracy and PASOK were roundly punished.
SYRIZA polled 16.8 percent in a highly fragmented field, putting it second.
Opinion polls suggest it is neck-and-neck with New Democracy ahead of Sunday’s repeat vote, forced after bitterly divided political factions failed to form a government.
Tsipras is a father of one child and is expecting another with his partner Betty after the election. In trademark defiance of traditional Greek society, the two have not married.