By DEREK GATOPOULOS
ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Alexis Tsipras has rarely been on good terms with Greece's establishment.
During high school, he was a leader in a student protest against education reform that shook the conservative government of the early 1990s, appearing on television as a confident 16-year-old spokesman for the movement.
Two decades later, he's rattling Europe and the world economy as he campaigns to become Greece's next leader with a simple if startling pledge: to tear up a multibillion-euro international agreement that bailed out Greece as it hurtled toward bankruptcy.
The extreme left-wing Tsipras believes the budget-cutting imposed on Greece, which is suffering through its fifth year of recession and an unemployment rate nearly 22 percent, should be cancelled. Global financial markets are on tenterhooks over a possible victory by the tough-talking 37-year-old, who dresses casually and has a portrait of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara on his office wall.
European financial leaders quickly put together a plan to rescue Spain's banks over the weekend in part to try to limit financial fallout from the Greek election.
Tsipras' radical agenda scares even many Europeans who have railed against austerity. And if he's given the power to carry it out, Greece may soon find itself kicked out of the euro common currency.
Opinion polls now put his Tsipras' Syriza party, which long struggled to win seats in Parliament, in a dead heat with the once powerful center-right New Democracy. The election is June 17.
Greeks deserted mainstream parties in May 6 inconclusive elections after the country sank into a government-debt crisis that forced draconian spending cuts. Even low-income pensioners and minimum wage-earners have been forced to make sacrifices.
"The rotten and reliant establishment is making its last stand. Their dominance is ending after they looted the country and saddled it with debt," Tsipras said at a recent campaign appearance.
Friends describe him as down-to-earth and committed to change. He is Greece's first major political leader to be born after the fall of the country's 1967-74 military dictatorship, which ended decades of political turmoil. He grew up in an era of unprecedented political freedom in Greece, without having experienced any of the harsh polarization between left and right that marked the country since the mid-1930s.
"He has played a big role in the party's (success), mainly because he's a politician who does not keep his distance from people," ranking Syriza member Sofia Sakorafa told the AP.
Sakorafa, a longtime javelin world record holder before going into politics, said she was impressed by Tsipras' ability reach out to voters.
"He can talk to people, and he is genuine. He wins them over with the truth as he believes it."
Rarely seen wearing a tie, Tsipras has broken the mold of the Greek career politician. Unlike many of them, he isn't linked to one of the country's powerful families, and during the crisis he hasn't been seen as being out of touch.
He has been riding high on a wave of anti-austerity sentiment that has swept the country as deep spending cuts have eaten into health care, salaries and pensions, sent the unemployment rate soaring and forced tens of thousands of businesses to shut down since late 2009.
Despite two international rescue loan packages, Greece has been unable to pull itself out of its debt crisis, leading the heads of all the main political parties to argue for some form of renegotiation to the terms. But it is Tsipras who has the most radical approach, saying that simply extending loan repayment times or slightly tweaking targets will not work. He wants the terms cancelled.
But while the iPad-tapping, football-watching civil engineer has youthful appeal, not everyone is buying it.
A growing number of political opponents have a different description for him: an irresponsible populist, whose disregard for basic monetary arithmetic could nudge the country into financial oblivion.
"Syriza is selling the public a fairytale with populism and propaganda of the worst kind ... pretending they can solve the country's problems with a magic wand," Theodoros Pangalos, deputy prime minister in the previous Socialist-led government, told private Real FM radio.
Mainstream parties and market analysts insist Tsipras cannot shred Greece's deal with 16 other eurozone countries and expect to remain in the single currency for long.
"(His) views only have appeal because of the exceptionally difficult circumstances this country and its people are in," Pangalos said.
Syriza came second to the conservatives in May 6 elections that failed to produce a government, winning nearly 17 percent of the vote and increasing its support four-fold.
Winners, what happened at the music awards show. (Photos)
A Canadian singer struggles with the American anthem.
Your future toothpaste could offer caffeine, pain relief and more.
Conn. zoo officials don't know how this baby came to be born.