ATHENS – Greece’s rebranded, crushed, major opposition SYRIZA will pick a leader Sept. 24 between a female former labor minister who rose through the ranks or a gay American ship owner who embodies all the party says it is not.
Stefanos Kasselakis, 35, raised in Massachusetts and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, stunned Greek politics when he came out of nowhere, unelected to Parliament, winning the first-round selection fight.
He beat Effi Achtsioglou, 38, who had been anointed the likely winner before he jumped into the fight and she has scrambled to make up a near 9-point deficit by capitalizing on his political blunders, including calling the occupied part of Cyprus a Turkish “statelet.”
She said that showed he’s a rookie without the required foreign policy knowledge to handle the party helm as SYRIZA – now called the Progressive Alliance after changing from the Radical Left – was destroyed in June elections.
The Leftists had won 149 seats in the 300-member Parliament in 2015 behind Alexis Tsipras but his 4 ½ year run as Prime Minister saw him break virtually all his promises, impose austerity and drive SYRIZA into oblivion.
The party has only 44 seats in Parliament and mostly irrelevant but Kasselakis – who had praised Prime Minister and New Democracy leader but now says he’s the only who can beat him – and Achtsioglou vying to pick up the pieces.
His critics said Kasselakis, on paper, seems the perfect candidate – for the Conservatives, but he was endorsed by a firebrand former deputy health minister Pavlos Polakis and his top advisor is Tsipras’ cousin Giorgos.
Tsipras has stayed above the fray so far but Kasselakis’ entry has, if nothing else, injected energy into a dormant race that saw three party veterans tied to austerity and the past easily ejected in the first round.
In a feature on the race, the British newspaper The Guardian noted that Kasselakis “is rich, handsome, openly gay, a former Goldman Sachs trader and shipowner to boot,” and has taken SYRIZA by storm, before stumbling.
The report by veteran correspondent Helena Smith said he “has lit up country’s staid political scene in ways few could have imagined. What might once have seemed outlandish – a US businessman vying for the leadership of the radical force – suddenly seems very real.”
Kasselakis said he can defeat Mitsotakis, who seems like an older mirror image: both Ivy League graduates, Capitalist-driven, pro-business who wouldn’t seem out of place talking to each other at a cocktail party, swapping success stories.
Kasselakis said he speaks better English than Mitsotakis – who went to Harvard and Stanford and is completely fluent – and the newcomer boasted he’s also better in finance business, which are Mitsotakis’ specialties.
Kasselakis already has spoken like he’s won and is positioning himself to go after Mitsotakis in the next elections, scheduled for 2027 unless there are snap polls as the Premier has taken a beating over wildfires, floods and ministers resigning.
MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL
In trying to reposition his image – again – Kasselakis has switched from tailored suits for jeans and T-shirts and taken off his tie, an accessory that Tsipras famously refused to wear as the seeming symbol of a rebel.
“We’re all on the edge of our seats,” said one SYRIZA party official, the news story noted, adding that, “And that’s because in many ways his victory looks so darn inevitable.” Achtsioglou begs to differ.
But if he does win, the former investment banker will lead a motley crew of Maxists, Leninists, Stalinists, ex-Communists, ecologists and anarchist and terrorist sympathizers whose loyalties don’t lie with his background.
The leftwing writer Dimitris Psarras told the paper that, ““It’s as if Netflix has come in, taken over the party and is now turning it into a serial,” about the oddity and surrealism of it all.
People have no idea what his politics are about or whether he has a program at all. Of course, they’re in shock,” he said. Indeed, there’s no talking about what he would do, only how he looks, or seems.
In an opinion piece published in July the entrepreneur called his decision to engage in Greek politics “a brief interlude between two chapters in my business career” in trying to run a party that didn’t want foreign investors he worked for.
Tsipras gave him the honorary position of being a Diaspora candidate on SYRIZA’s state ballot in April but Kasselakis failed to register before he threw his hat – and partner and dog – into the ring to capture attention.
“Thankfully, given the nature of my business in shipping over the past six years, I have been able to reconnect with Greece … and have been able to shape my own views on the changes the country needs,” he wrote.
“If the intention is to govern again, SYRIZA should just copy the US formula as soon as possible (and) unequivocally embrace the political center as well.” That kind of talk used to be antithetical and anathema to SYRIZA before it was routed.
Under Tsipras, the party stymied development of the 8-billion euro ($8.53 billion) development of the abandoned Hellenikon International Airport on Athens’ coast and put up roadblocks against foreign investors and businesses.
Kasselakis said he wants “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 legal same-sex marriage.
He hasn’t given details, only outlines and that saw critics rip him as a hologram, not a whole candidate and Achtsioiglou has been emphasizing her experience in the party and politics but struggled to glow with the same kind of charisma.
“If he wins it will be a choice that will make the goal of kicking out the right more difficult and will distance SYRIZA from the left,” said Nikos Filis, a former education minister.
“People wanted to send a message,” said Giorgos Tsipras of the first round win. , “We can’t act as if nothing is happening. People want another party, other faces … the party can become a more aggressive opposition and embrace more people toward the center.