ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's left wing leader Alexis Tsipras admitted making mistakes in negotiations for a massive new bailout agreement, during a televised election debate late Wednesday, but insisted the deal would safeguard the country's financial future.
The 41-year-old Tsipras is seeking re-election in the snap Sept. 20 poll, called after the 86 billion-euro ($96 billion) rescue deal reached in July split his Syriza party over the harsh austerity measures demanded in return.
"There were mistakes and exaggerations, but they were corrected at the critical moment," said Tsipras, who spent much of the debate on the defensive.
"We did not surrender. We reached a painful compromise that has many positive elements for the Greek people."
Greece is expected to sink back into recession this year after briefly emerging from a six-year contraction. The prospect of continued hardship and the split in Syriza has seen Tsipras lose a huge lead in opinion polls that now put him in a dead heat with rival conservatives.
Smaller parties have also gained support, meaning the winner of this month's election would likely require the backing of at least two coalition partners.
But one possible Tsipras ally, Socialist leader Fofi Gennimata, criticized the government's seven-month record in office during the live debate.
"If there was a Golden Raspberry award for the economy, Mr. Tsipras would definitely be the winner," she said.
"He turned surpluses into deficits, emptied out welfare funds, and took us to the brink of euro exit and catastrophe."
Wednesday's debate — the first in six years — was attended by seven party leaders and broadcast live on state and private channels.
The extreme right Golden Dawn party was excluded, despite being the third-largest party in opinion polls. Senior members of the party, including its leader Nikos Michaloliakos, are currently on trial on charges of running a criminal organization allegedly linked to brutal beatings of migrants and leftists, and the fatal stabbing of a rap singer.
Next week's election will be the third time this year that Greeks have gone to the polls — after a general election in January and a referendum called in July by Tsipras urging Greeks to reject creditor proposals for reforms in return for bailout funds.
A second debate between just Tsipras and main opposition conservative New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis is expected early next week.