ATHENS – Even as political newcomer Stefanos Kasselakis completed his walkover win to lead Greece’s major opposition SYRIZA-Progressive Alliance, bitter division over an American leader with a Capitalist background.
“Thousands of people are guarantors of the unity of SYRIZA, the modern ruling Left, which Greece needs. We are all moving forward together,” he said as he voted in the second-round runoff.
Kasselakis, 35, easily beat the former frontrunner and one-time labor minister, Effi Achtsioglou, 38, but before the celebration had died down there was rancor building in some parts of a party that’s a collection of ex-Communists, ecologists, and anarchist and terrorist sympathizers.
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After his shock win – although he had topped a five-candidate field in a first round ballot that proved to be a harbinger – he said that, “Today light won and hope collectively, hope for the future … I am not a phenomenon. I am the voice of a society and I’m not going to let you down. Tomorrow the hard work begins.”
Kasselakis – who a year earlier praised Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis – moved to Athens only recently with his American husband Tyler McBeth, a nurse.
He called over to McBeth to join him as he addressed the crowd, referring to his partner as “my personal family” and said, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for welcoming him and embracing him.”
He has stated that if the party ever wants to taste power again it should “just copy the US formula as soon as possible” by transforming into a “big tent” US-style Democratic party, the British newspaper The Guardian noted.
While criticized for being such a political novice he called the Turkish-occupied side of Cyprus a Turkish “statelet” and not having a detailed agenda he said his priorities included “drastic” tax relief for private and public sector employees, the separation of church and state, judicial reforms, citizenship for migrant children born and brought up in Greece and legalizing same-sex marriage.
Under former leader and previous Premier Alexis Tsipras, who quit after being routed in June elections that re-elected Mitsotakis, SYRIZA had rebranded itself from the Radical Left as it declined.
There was speculation in Greek media that while Kasselakis’ victory was being bailed by many in the party as a springboard to bring back relevance after falling to 47 seats in Parliament that it could dissolve from within over infighting.
Stelios Kouloglou, a Member of the European Parliament from SYRIZA said that the victory of the political rookie – who wasn’t elected to Parliament and won’t have a voice there unless others step out of the way – was its death knell.
A RIGHT HOOK
“This is the end of left-wing SYRIZA as we know it,” Kouloglou told the British newspaper The Guardian newspaper. “That party died tonight,” he said, adding that the party’s traditional base of supports were in “complete shock.”
Kasselakis was a ship owner and former associate for the American financial firm Goldman Sachs that had been accused of profiting from a 2010-18 economic and austerity crisis that required three bailouts of 326 billion euros ($346.16 billion.)
He’s won the helm but now will face trying to win the hearts and minds of the disaffected in the party that has a number of factions and is notorious for battling over its direction, Tsipras having tilted toward the center instead of the left.
A SYRIZA Member of Parliament, Evangelos Apostolakis, a former chief of the Armed Forces, applauded the ascension of Kasselakis and said he thought it would energize and resurrect the battered party.
“I feel vindicated. SYRIZA voters again supported the victory of hope and light. A new day begins with work and progress,” said Apostolakis, who jumped in to back his campaign, as did a firebrand former deputy minister, Pavlos Polakis.
“Clear positions and decisive actions are necessary for the tasks at hand within the party and its future. There is no space for time-wasting and pointless conflicts,” he said, adding that, “It’s somewhat natural for resentments to arise following an intra-party confrontation.”
Apostolakis said Kasselakis’ critics and rivals will just have to accept that he swept the party’s voters off their feet in just a few weeks to take over and that they would have to fall in line or step out of line and get out of the way.
“SYRIZA will operate as a cohesive party – no factions, no internal divisions, no upheavals, and no internal opposition. Anyone who aligns with these principles, anyone who wishes to contribute, is welcome to join us in moving forward. Those who do not share this vision are free to step aside.”
Nikos Pappas, a former minister and Tsipras advisor who was a candidate in SYRIZA’s first round embraced Kasselakis and said the winner has a mandate to reshape the party into a “left-wing, progressive and democratic party.”
During an interview on Mega TV, Pappas defended the decision to conduct an open leadership contest following the party’s double defeat in legislative elections earlier, calling it a “rejuvenating and inclusive process.”
Kasselakis was elected new leader on Sunday defeating Effie Achtsioglou, a lawyer and former labor minister.
As Kasselakis is not a legislator, he will have to designate a lawmaker to oversee the SYRIZA parliamentary group and he won’t be able to take the floor in debates or to speak. He was on the ballot for Parliament earlier but didn’t win a seat.