ALEXIS TSIPRAS has been talking up his left-wing credentials as he campaigns for the European parliament election on May 26th, which is widely seen as a test run for a Greek general election due by late October. In speeches, the prime minister makes a point of distancing the ruling Syriza party from the corrupt, high-living elite he blames for plunging the country into an unprecedented eight-year recession.
Last week, though, Mr Tsipras took a roasting on social media: photos of him lounging on an Athens tycoon’s yacht last August appeared on scores of Greek websites. The premier’s unannounced holiday was also criticised as disrespectful to the memory of 102 people who had been killed in a devastating forest fire the previous month. Many of the deaths could have been prevented, investigators argued, were it not for bungling by the police and the fire service.
Some Syriza aides worry that Mr Tsipras is losing touch with voters. He recently spent a week on a leisurely campaign tour on Crete with Pavlos Polakis, the outspoken deputy health minister. Many Greeks were shocked when Mr Polakis blasted a young, wheelchair-bound psychiatrist, a European parliament candidate with the opposition New Democracy party, for using procedures intended for people with special needs to get a job at a state hospital. He ignored calls to apologise from cabinet colleagues.
Mr Tsipras shrugged off the incident, calling Mr Polakis “a blunt-spoken islander”. When Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy, demanded a parliamentary vote to censure him, the prime minister raised the stakes by calling for a vote of confidence in his minority Syriza government.
Syriza survived that vote thanks to backing from right-wing and independent MPs. It helped, too, that Mr Tsipras announced a pre-election economic package worth around €1bn ($1.1bn) during the confidence debate, to be delivered before May 26th. A one-off payment to pensioners will cost €800m, while a huge cut of 11 percentage points in value added tax, from 24% to 13%, on food and drink served in cafes and restaurants will reduce revenues by an estimated €600m. Mr Tsipras has already postponed a commitment to Greece’s creditors, the EU and the International Monetary Fund, to lower the income-tax threshold.
Syriza is still trailing New Democracy by a wide margin, according to opinion polls. But two polls published last week showed the gap shrinking from 8-9 points to 6-7 points. Voters are unfazed by Mr Tsipras’ choice of holiday companions, it seems, if he comes up with tax breaks and generous handout.