After Failed Leftist Adventure, Mitsotakis Offers Greeks Right Turn

FILE - Greek opposition New Democracy party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks during the presentation of his platform in Athens, Friday, June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS – No longer buying Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’ act of bringing a revolution to Greece and Europe before he surrendered to international creditors and reneged on anti-austerity promises, Greek voters are expected to turn in July 7 snap elections to major opposition center-right New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

The Conservative chief said he would essentially put Greece – promising to rebrand the country – into a right turn in favor of business, foreign investors, cutting red tape blocking growth hopes, cracking down on lawlessness and the kind of agenda voters rejected in January, 2015 when, weary of mainstream parties, they elected Tsipras.

This time Mitsotakis has vowed to be different and use the clout of his dynastic family – his late father was a Prime Minister, his sister Dora Bakoyianni is a former Mayor of Athens and New Democracy stalwart and her son, Pavlos is the newly-elected mayor of the city – to bring recovery from a 9 1/2-year long economic crisis that sapped the souls of many.

If he’s elected, The Wall Street Journal noted in a feature for which he declined to be interviewed despite the paper’s clout, he would make Greece the first European country in recent years to return to an establishment party after being led by populist outsiders.

It may be more because of voter fury at Tsipras for breaking his word to help workers, pensioners and the poor, and for giving away the name of the ancient Greek province of Macedonia to a newly-renamed North Macedonia, but it’s opened the door wide for Mitsotakis to walk in.

Of course, voters are like juries and you never know what they’ll do, but Mitsotakis and New Democracy was taking leads as high as 9 percent into the elections during a listless campaign that has seen Tsipras mostly going through the motions as seeming to accept what’s coming.

Mitsotakis promises to slash taxes and bureaucracy and make Greece an easier place to do business, a path, he said, would lead the country’s European creditors – especially Germany, the biggest contributor to 326 billion euros ($368.35 billion) in three bailouts, and the harshest taskmaster in demanding austerity – to relax tough fiscal goals.

“We will come as a bulldozer and demolish the barriers that keep business captive,” Mitsotakis told entrepreneurs on the island of Kos in early June, part of his pledge to instantly give the okay for the long-delayed $8 billion development of the abandoned Hellenikon International Airport on Athens’ coast that was repeatedly stymied by anti-business interests in SYRIZA.

Voters have heard this kind of talk repeatedly over the generations only see the winning parties lapse right back into the kind of political favoritism and clientelism that rewards loyalists and sidelines entrepreneurs and people with initiative but Mitsotakis said he would bring genuine reforms and convince the creditors, the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) to let him cut taxes raised by Tsipras, who rolled some of them back in a desperate attempt to curry favor with disenchanted voters.

He’ll have to deal with elements in the party who want the spoils of victory if he wins, and push back against calls for revenge against Tsipras for claiming that a number of key Conservatives, including former Premier Antonis Samaras, took bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, an alleged scandal that has fallen apart with no evidence being brought.

The paper noted that Greece has been at the head of European trends before, such as in 2012 during the height of the Eurozone crisis as the first country whose politics fragmented as voters abandoned mainstream parties and flocked to insurgent groups from the anti-Capitalist far-left to the nationalist far-right.

In January 2015, that saw SYRIZA sweep aside a New Democracy-led coalition under Samaras only to see Tsipras within months succumb to Troika demands and start reneging on his promises  to reject austerity, instead imposing more.

Tsipras’ words kept defying the Troika while his actions bowed to them, speaking from both sides of his mouth simultaneously while saying it wasn’t his fault, Greeks quickly wearying of the doubletalk that seem set to bring him down, barring a political miracle.

Even has he tried to roll back some of the austerity he imposed and handed out bonuses to pensioners and cut some of the taxes he raised – not the corporate rate set at 29 percent that Mitsotakis said he’d lower as an incentive for investors – Tsipras lost more favor with voters.

Mitsotakis has the pedigree to rule: an M.B.A. from Harvard, where he did his undergraduate studies, and another master’s degree from Stanford; he worked for Chase Manhattan Bank and McKinsey & Co. before running venture-capital funds in Greece, the Journal noted.

When he was Greece’s Administrative Reform Minister he fired thousands of state workers without giving them a review as he promised, adhering to a pro-austerity stance of New Democracy that he has tried to back away from now.

He’s not exactly electric as a campaigner, coming across as wooden and scripted, passion seemingly feigned instead of delivered from the heart, more of the kind of technocrat he said he’d bring into his Cabinet instead of the usual list of unqualified politicians given favors.

“Critics, including members of New Democracy’s old guard, say he lacks charisma and is too neoliberal, or free-market oriented,” is how The Journal’s Nektaria Stamouli put it, adding that he has skeptics to deal with and will have to resist an Old Guard eager for the spoils of power.

“Mitsotakis is consistent in his liberal and reform orientation. His challenge is to also renew his party,” George Pagoulatos, professor of European politics and economics at the Athens University of Economics and Business told the paper.

He’s coming off a big win for New Democracy candidates in the May 26 elections for the European Parliament and Greek municipalities, thumping the offerings of the suddenly-sidelined and shellshocked SYRIZA, which expected to win.

New Democracy supporters backed the traditional candidates, presenting a dilemma for Mitsotakis. “Unfortunately when people vote eventually, celebrity status and the party machinery tend to matter more than the qualifications,” said Pagoulatos.

If elected, he said he would rework some of the details of Macedonia name giveaway, putting him at instant odds with the United States which wanted North Macedonia in NATO – Tsipras lifted a Greek veto and another blocking the country’s European Union accession hopes.

That stance gained him votes from furious Greeks but cool receptions from the international community which backed the deal. Since he wouldn’t speak to the Journal, a spokesman said he presented reasoned arguments against the deal and kept the far-right from gaining traction.

He said he will implement tax cuts on Jan. 1, 2010 that would not be negotiable with the country’s creditors who still have the power to pull the plug on debt relief terms and could trigger automati spending cuts if fiscal targets aren’t met.

Tax cuts could put him in a confrontation with the Troika and could lead to missing targets by up to 1.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product, Yiannis Mouzakis, co-founder of Greek analysis website MacroPolis told the paper.

After years of spending cuts, “it will be a challenge to find savings of the required scale to implement the ambitious tax cuts that have been promised,” Mouzakis said.

Mitsotakis may find for all his promises – the kind of high-flung rhetoric Greeks buy every election – that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and could be hard-pressed from becoming the Tsipras of the center-right if forced to make the kind of concessions he said he wouldn’t, but this is Greece.