It’s been a long road for Harvard and Stanford graduate Kyriakos Mitsotakis to be poised on the edge of power in Greece, and follow in the footsteps of his father, former Premier Constantine Mitsotakis, who served from 1990-93.
But it looks like he’s finally there, his party leading in polls ahead of May 26 elections for Greek municipalities and the European Parliament, and favored to win general elections later this year, sweet revenge over the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who toppled a Conservative-led coalition in January, 2015.
Mitsotakis, 51, is portrayed by Tsipras – a former Communist Youth leader who led high school uprisings against education reforms put forth by Mitsotakis’ father – as an out-of-touch elitist, while the Premier paints himself as being with the common man.
Tsipras doesn’t mention he buried workers, pensioners and the poor with harsh austerity measures after breaking vows to reverse them, nor that he vacationed on a yacht after the 2018 wildfires outside Athens that killed 102 people, nor that he has cozied up to the country’s creditors to get a third bailout in 2015, for 86 billion euros ($96.24 billion.)
All that’s been lost in the fog of political war with both sides spinning what they want voters to believe, with Tsipras – after imposing big tax hikes and pension cuts – giving pension bonuses and tax cuts days before the election and promising more, if only he’s re-elected of course.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel followed Mitsotakis on an exhausive campaign trail and said he’s presenting himself as someone who understands daily hardships of people hurt by austerity measures, without mentioning he supported them while serving as Administrative Reform Minister under the previous Conservative-led coalition with the now-defunct PASOK Socialists.
While his father was Prime Minister, Mitsotakis was working as a financial analyst for Chase Bank in London before hearing the call from his homeland and returning, going into politics and making the unlikely rise to power for his party after former Premier Antonis Samaras lost to Tsipras in 2015 and then-New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis fell in snap elections in September that year.
Those double defeats, embarrassing spankings really by SYRIZA, which also succeeded in imploding PASOK into oblivion for backing austerity measures, saw the Conservatives turn to Mitsotakis to bring them back, and he’s on the way to doing that, the polls say.
TURN ON THE CHARM
It could turn into a battle of charisma, with Tsipras said to have it, along with street smarts as the product of public schools, and Mitsotakis seen as a wooden figure who can’t ignite passion. Yet it was there, said the German paper, as he campaigned in the northern city of Serres.
Mitsotakis, the report said, “smiles contentedly, shakes hundreds of hands and is bombarded by requests for selfies every few meters. The central square in Serres is teeming with people drinking coffee or enjoying the spring sun,” and basking in Mitsotakis.
Now, it said, “He’s ready to claim the big prize: He’s currently the favorite to become the next Greek Prime Minister,” unless Tsipras’ frantic barrage of handouts, giveaways and the same kind of broken promises that got him elected work a political miracle.
The May 26 ballot is the first time Greeks will have gone to polls nationally, if not for Premier this time, and Mitsotakis said he wants not just a win, but a mandate that will make Tsipras quit or call snap elections and be swept out of power.
“If Nea Dimokratia does return to power in the autumn, it would be an extraordinary turn of events. The anti-systemic wave that catapulted Tsipras and his Syriza party to power and annihilated the traditional center-left PASOK party never hit the conservatives,” the paper said.
What’s propelling Mitsotakis’ hope is the same kind of rage against power that brought SYRIZA into power when the Leftists rode a wave of fury against establishment parties blamed for bringing the country to near ruin and requiring what turned into three bailouts of 326 billion euros ($364.83 billion,) and brought harsh measures hurting workers and pensioners the most.
“Countries and societies correct themselves,” Mitsotakis told Der Spiegel. “We have drifted toward populism, lies and incompetence. In Greek history, there have been many cases when, after a period of decay, something new was born.”
Mitsotakis describes the Tsipras Administration as “Greece’s worst government since 1974,” the year democracy was restored after the military putsch against the seven-year junta which was especially harsh on Communists and Leftists.
It may not be as easy as the polls indicate, with Tsipras’ handouts halving New Democracy’s lead and the Premier claiming he’s bringing recovery – without mentioning it’s largely because he didn’t, as he vowed, clash with the country’s creditors.
Using a larger-than-expected primary surplus, which doesn’t include interest on the debt, the cost of running cities and towns, state enterprises, social security, some military expenditures and by holding back payments to people and businesses owed money by the state, the government diped into that trough to, as New Democracy said, bribe voters with handouts.
Unemployment is down – though still the highest in the European Union – and Tsipras has done essentially nothing to put the young to work while breaking anti-patronage vows to pack his government with cronies at high salaries.
He claimed that 10 political rivals – including Samaras and Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras – took bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical company after a key minister said SYRIZA’s hopes of returing to power depended on “putting some people in jail.”
The alleged scandal blew up in Tsipras’ face when prosecutors dropped the case against nine of those named as already guilty without a shred of evidence being brought by three whistleblowers who said they may have heard the accused took money.
He came to power with an anti-American and anti-NATO stance Tsipras has made relations with the United States the closest they’ve ever been, both sides said, and he’s now best buddies with European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel who he vowed to defy.
They love him now because he caved in to them and Der Spiegel put it this way: “Tsipras has still met the requirements of the foreign creditor countries, and there is little left of his once radical positions on the euro and debt. He has taken steps toward freeing the highly indebted country from the burdens created by the bailout programs and regained some of the country’s lost sovereignty,” at the cost of broken promises and principles.
“Mitsotakis, on the other hand, accuses Tsipras and his government of having flirted in 2015 with Grexit and pulling out of the euro and then saddling the nation with a third rescue program. Both, he argues, were unnecessary and extremely expensive. “We may no longer be standing at the edge of the abyss,” Mitsotakis said, “but the country is still paying the consequences for the first six months of 2015,” the paper said.
While Tsipras said he’s bringing recovery, Mitsotakis said he brought ruin to workers, especially the middle class who Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos admitted was deliberately overtaxed so that the Leftists could redistribute income to others.
And the Greek economy, with the end of the bailouts on Aug. 20, 2018, is still struggling, the debt rising by the second, the lenders – the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) and the Washington, D.C.-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) worried the Tsipras handouts will unravel reforms and progress.
Mitsotakis said Tsipras has failed on the economy, “The issue that affects the lives of Greeks most. This is why 80% of voters believe Greece is heading in the wrong direction,” Mitsotakis said, arguing that the country needs foreign investors scared off by a 29 percent corporate rate and hard-core elements in SYRIZA trying to keep them out.
Tsipras may have raised taxes to meet fiscal targets,but “investments were undermined and privatizations were implemented when forced only when they had to,” said Mitsotakis, who’s not relying on his name but an old school door-to-door campaign and not just the traditional Greek style of playing to a chorus of believers already voting for you. He wants the middle ground too.
Coming from a political family, he said, is an advantage. “Power doesn’t go to my head easily,” he said.
“We will prove there is another way,” he said. “That you don’t have to be a populist, you don’t have to be nationalist, you don’t have to shoot Europe to achieve electoral success. Greece was the first country in the Eurozone that experimented with populism. And it will be the first country to enter the post-populism age.”
MACEDONIA IS GREEK
He said his objection to Tsipras giving away the name of the ancient Greek province of Macedonia to a newly-named North Macedonia is genuine, although it was father who first allowed the use of that name in agreeing to the composite The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) for the new country emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia.
He insists the agreement is genuinely bad for Greek interests and that the negotiations carried out were “miserable.” When he campaigns to voters on the street, he tells them the deal is very bad, but also legally binding, the report added.
He may also find himself in a bind over the economy as three memoranda with the lenders have locked Greece into meeting fiscal targets for decades, although he insists he can get them to rework the agreements to open up some room for an investment program and better conditions for the loans, although they’ve already been restructured.
“It is simply wrong to let Greece drown in such high surpluses,” Mitsotakis says. “The main concern of Europeans is how to get their money back. And they will not get their money back if the economy is only growing by 1 percent a year,” he said.
He said he will lure investors, cut taxes, reverse SYRIZA damage, push entrepreneurs, open the door to privatization and have an economic program based on growth and not austerity or just taxing people to death.
Like all candidates for Prime Minister, he said he will stop patronage and appoint people based on merit, a promise almost as old as Greece itself and never done.
What he really wants too, he said, is to keep Greece’s young in the country after scores of thousands fled during the last nine years in search of work and a better life in other countries, most destined never to return except to see family.
He said he was moved after meeting two women in a small village near Serres who said they are having their children learn foreign languages so they can move away too, giving up hope on Greece forever.
“I want young Greeks to learn foreign languages as an asset, and if they do emigrate, then only by choice, not out of necessity,” he said.