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Greece’s New Prime Minister Is Just as Populist as the Old One
Athens’s center-right establishment is back in power after mimicking the scare tactics of the far-left.
In many ways, the outcome of Sunday’s elections in Greece was no surprise: New Democracy (ND), the center-right party headed by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won with a comfortable margin over the far-left Syriza and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, as analysts have been expecting for months. ND, having earned 39.85 percent of the vote, now has a strong mandate to carry out its agenda of tax cuts, privatizations, and other measures aimed at boosting foreign investment in the country. Its leader, the self-described “reform-minded” Mitsotakis, holds all the cards in selecting his cabinet and priorities.
But if Mitsotakis’s party was correct to declare victory, it went too far in claiming to have defeated populism. It’s true that Syriza built its messaging around a stark “us versus them” narrative that pitted one part of the Greek population against another. But ND, contrary to its establishment reputation, approached the election campaign in the same way. Greece will soon discover whether it governs in the same manner.
Syriza followed its usual line against traditional elites and implored Greeks not to let their significant sacrifices since the financial crisis go in vain now that the austerity program imposed by the European Union had nominally concluded. ND, for its part, banked heavily on rhetoric promising revenge against leftists. During the campaign, supporters of the party promoted a hashtag on social media likening the upcoming victory to an act of sexual violation against Syriza officials and members.
After two elections and a highly charged referendum campaign, Syriza’s populist message has ceased to resonate with voters. That’s in part because ND has dominated the media. In the run-up to the vote, Syriza was almost nowhere to be found. ND not only vastly outspent the other party in terms of advertising, but it enjoyed unlimited support from newspapers and among the talking heads who dominate television coverage. ND also recruited journalists to become candidates, thus leveraging their positions in broadcasting and publishing in support of the campaign (in violation of all journalistic ethics). Syriza only managed to grab a few paltry headlines when Tsipras made personal campaign appearances.
But Syriza’s popularity has diminished also because the party’s platform increasingly centers on the personality of the party leader. Syriza originally drew its strength from the grassroots movements opposed to EU-dictated austerity. During its time in office, the party has increasingly shifted its priorities to become whatever Tsipras says they should be.
This has been the source of Tsipras’s success—and the root of his downfall. In some ways, Tsipras’s reputation is as strong as it has ever been, especially on the international stage ever since he resolved a decades-long diplomatic standoff between Greece and North Macedonia. But the prime minister’s personal brand couldn’t carry an entire party for very long. That was evident in Sunday’s election results: Syriza lost nearly 150,000 votes compared with September 2015. At the same time, ND won over more than 700,000 new voters.
For too long, Tsipras had tried to be all things to all people. A left-wing firebrand who enforced austerity more efficiently than any prior government; a champion of the poor who broke every promise he made to the downtrodden before resorting to last-minute handouts; a protector of refugees who presided over the hell on earth that was the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.
What made the situation worse is that Syriza failed to promote any of the positive policies it pushed through, including a reform of collective bargaining for workers that restored some of the legal protections previously stripped during the crisis, a significant drop in unemployment, an extension of access to health care that likely saved thousands of lives, and the most LGBT-friendly policies in Greece’s history. Given Syriza’s poor messaging, Greeks would be forgiven for forgetting any of this ever happened.
The result of these failures is the opposition’s unprecedented success. Far from simply winning the parliamentary elections, ND now finds itself controlling every level of the state, from local to regional to national institutions. (The new mayor of Athens, for instance, is Kostas Bakoyannis, nephew to Mitsotakis.)
What Mitsotakis will do with all this raw firepower remains to be seen. For now, his economic program is one that seriously relies on tax cuts, a point that the country’s creditors might have issue with. Mitsotakis suggests that these tax cuts will be funded through growth, which he hopes will be as high as 4 percent every year under his leadership. Either way, the policy is sure to earn the support of most Greeks: Heavy taxation and high utility bills are two of the main reasons residents find it hard to make ends meet.
Another of Mitsotakis’s priorities is the reform of Greece’s pension and health care system. His plans, however, lack detail, beyond his commitment to broad “third way” economic principles under which the private and public sectors are supposed to somehow cooperate in the provision of services. The track record of such policies elsewhere in Europe, however, has not been particularly good, with private finance initiatives in the United Kingdom serving as a prime example.
Alongside his economic reform proposals, Mitsotakis also emphasized elements of conservative nationalism in his campaign. The far-right faction of his party set the tone, including a divisive promise that social benefits would be reserved “for Greeks only.” But Mitsotakis’s comfortable victory gives him a chance to reshape the party’s nationalism in a more moderate direction, if he wishes to do so. That could be exactly what Greeks are looking for. There is currently a palpable lack of a sense of security and a desire for community in the country; at the same time, the ND’s authoritarian tendencies have never chimed well with most of the Greek public.
A more moderate “one nation” approach could help the party make inroads with Syriza’s lower-middle-class supporters. This is the tone that Mitsotakis tried to strike in his victory speech Sunday night. “I’ll be a prime minister for all Greeks,” he said. “I will work to also convince our fellow citizens who didn’t support us.”
He will have only one shot at it: Greeks have not forgotten that ND was the party responsible for bankrupting the country and causing its crisis in the first place. If the ND government does manage to combine high growth and lower taxes, it could once again become the long-term reigning force in Greek politics. Should it simply extend austerity and focus on bashing the other side, Mitsotakis might not even last one full term.