I could not resist a visit to the nearest polling station in the election of the new leader of SYRIZA this past Sunday. Especially after news broke in the afternoon that there were long lines outside polling stations throughout Greece. Commentators noted that there was a larger turnout than expected and also that each polling station had only one tablet computer that was recording the vote. The high turnout was due to the nearly last minute candidacy of Stefanos Kasselakis that shook up the race to replace Alexis Tsipras, who stepped down as SYRIZA president after the party underperformed in the Greek elections earlier this year. To describe Kasselakis as an outsider would be an understatement. He was educated in the United States at Andover College and the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and remained in the United States and worked at Goldman Sachs and then went into shipping. Unlike the other candidates for the leadership position, he did not rise through the SYRIZA ranks paying his dues serving on the many rungs of the hierarchical party ladder. And thirdly, he is openly gay and appears publicly with a male partner and that makes him a complete outlier in a country whose political leaders project a public image that is all about traditional, heterosexual family values. Rather than feel encumbered by all this, Kasselakis has made his outsider status a virtue, presenting himself with lively and well crafted video clips as the only person who can revive SYRIZA and defeat prime minister Mitsotakis.
Among the many new things that the Kasselakis’ candidacy has brought to Greece is also a surprising acceptance despite his American and Greek-American background. Political discourse in Greece can be just as toxic as it is in other countries, such as the United States in which partisan commentators heap scorn on popularly elected officials, including the President. Most criticisms levelled against Kasselakis that have come from within and outside SYRIZA denigrate what they see as a glib, media tailored campaign that has eschewed the traditional Greek leftist rhetoric. But there has been very little in terms of the typical ‘Amerikanaki’ pejoratives. This may be because he comes across as well informed about things in Greece and does not speak with an American accent. While those characteristics are true in the case of thousands of Greek-born Greek-Americans, more often than not, they cannot escape some degree of condescending treatment by ‘Greek Greeks’. But not in the case of Kasselakis, who wears his outsider status as a badge of honor and soared in the pre-election opinion polls among SYRIZA supporters and was leading on the eve of the first round of voting. Who would have thought that a party that opposed the extension of the vote to Greeks living abroad saw its supporters embrace a diaspora Greek, and one coming from America at that.
When I arrived at my local polling station, that serves the Kifisia municipality it was late afternoon and there as a line of people waiting in line. I realized that the building, a large, impressive looking 1970s two story villa donated to the Municipality which uses it for cultural events, is located in the Kastri section, very close to the Papandreou family house. That house was the residence of another American-educated figure in Greek politics, Andreas Papandreou, who spent several years as an economics professor in the United States and Canada before he returned to Greece to pursue a political career. Andreas’ Americanness was targeted by his political opponents but was more due to his ties with America rather than him being considered a Greek-American. That makes Kasselakis the first genuinely Greek-American candidate for political office in Greece to gain widespread popular support.
This was confirmed at the end of the day when the results came out and with a whopping 146,000 persons voting, Kasselakis came first with 45% of the vote, only six points less than the 51% candidates needed to win outright. The others running were not even close. The second round will be a runoff between him and Effie Achtsioglou who came second with 36%. She had been favored to win before Kasselakis took the election process by storm and was running a careful campaign appealing to the party’s hardliners.
Who wins in the second round is obviously crucial for SYRIZA’s future. Commentators are describing the contest as a clash of civilizations, the new that Kasselakis represents and old that Achtsioglou embodies.
Yet for Greek America, there may already be a winner, and that is the widespread acceptance of Kasselakis and his American background. Granted, many SYRIZA supporters are desperately looking for a way of reviving the failing fortunes of their party. But they have embraced a Greek-American outsider, and if they can do that, the rest of Greece can also look upon Greek-Americans in a more positive light.