Thursday, 11 July 2019

How family and politics shaped Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

The election of Greece’s reformist prime minister could mark a change in political culture after decades of overspending and a decade of austerity

When Kyriakos Mitsotakis assumed his first cabinet post in 2012, Greeks broadly agreed that he’d been seated before the poisoned chalice. Under the terms of a freshly signed, €130bn emergency loan from the Eurozone, the conservatives had to dismiss up to 25,000 state workers over two years and bring down the cost of government. It was Mitsotakis’ job to get it done.

Over two years, he dismissed more than 5,000 people, including the entire municipal police force and two thirds of the state television payroll – something no Greek government had done in living memory.

He also introduced evaluation. “Impunity in the state is over,” he told parliament in March 2014. “We will pull skeletons out of closets and we will send people home who’ve provably engaged in illegal practices.”

Asked about it on state television during his 2016 election campaign for the party leadership, Mitsotakis said, “The dismissals were a difficult political decision and I shouldered it myself without much support, but it was a government commitment. I don’t appreciate ex post facto criticism.”

In January 2016, when some 400,000 New Democracy party members turned out to vote for a new party leader, Mitsotakis won 52.4 percent - a five-point lead over his more populist rival, former defence minister Evangelos Meimarakis.

 “He stuck to his guns when everybody in the party was against what he was doing,” says Ioannis Leonis, a taxi driver. “That is very uncommon.”

Mitsotakis’ message for efficient and transparent government again won him support last weekend. His credentials as a politician willing to take personal risks to achieve unpopular reforms was one of his main advantages in Sunday’s election, which gave him 39.9 percent of the vote and a comfortable majority of 158 seats in parliament. The defeated leftwing Syriza did well, holding onto 31.5 percent of the electorate and positioning itself as the main opposition party.

The cabinet Mitsotakis, 51, swore in on Tuesday is a careful balance of party MPs and foreign-educated technocrats with extensive private sector experience, demonstrating his twin desires to keep his party united and deliver effectively on policy. Some have served in previous governments.

Mitsotakis reached across party lines, in an indication of his desire to appoint on substance. Citizens’ Protection Minister Mihalis Chrysohoidis is the former socialist minister responsible for apprehending the terrorist group 17 November in 2002.

“He was keen to choose the right people for the job, based on merit and their qualifications, while keeping his party happy at the same time. It is a cabinet that looks reformist, competent and up to the task, for the most part,” says political analyst Nicholas Nikolaidis.

However, Mitsotakis gave only two portfolios – culture and education – to women, and and appointed three women deputy ministers, a number Nikolaidis calls “staggeringly low”.

“It does not necessarily conform with the modern and dynamic picture Mitsotakis would like for his government,” Nikolaidis says.

Bringing the voters back

New Democracy’s outright victory appears to close a chapter in Greece’s political history, in which mainstream parties shed voters to splinter parties that carried them towards the political extremes.

Austerity and the economic depression it caused (Greece lost a quarter of its output in 2009-2017) broke the duopoly on power that the conservative New Democracy and socialist Pasok had held for the previous four decades.

The conservatives lost nearly half their voters during the years of recession, while the socialists plummeted to seven percent of the vote. Like the conservatives, the socialists were blamed for bankrupting the country, forcing it to seek emergency aid that came with severe terms. Unlike the conservatives, the socialists had a rival that succeeded in stealing their voter base – Syriza.

Unlike Syriza, Mitsotakis places his emphasis on reforming Greece out of its present mire, rather than on debt forgiveness. He once told the Washington Post that he agrees with “a substantial percentage” of creditors’ recommendations, including extensive privatisations.

His ground-breakingly reformist election platform includes partial privatisation of national health, the university system and social security. The fact that Greeks, who are traditionally statist, elected a leader on such a platform suggests that the crisis has transformed voters’ values.

Changing the party to change Greece

Although he hails from a political dynasty, Mitsotakis’ rise to power has been unexpected and political rivals have often underestimated him.

One problem is that he is a less accomplished speaker than his rival, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras. Many find that he suffers from a lack of personal warmth and likeability. None of New Democracy’s 75 Members of Parliament in 2016 openly supported him in the party leadership contest. Nor was he the choice of the party establishment.

“Kyriakos is a bit distant,” says veteran MP Kostas Tzavaras, who voted for the rival candidate but then declared himself a convert to Kyriakos. “Everyone is afraid of change, especially when they see their status in danger… They expected Meimarakis.”

“If one looks at the New Democracy party, the large majority of its rank and file belongs to the populist and patron-client tradition,” says George Pagoulatos, who teaches political economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “If he tries to purge all of them he would be risking a breakup of the party.” 

Instead, Mitsotakis seems to have effected a “marriage of necessity between reformers and traditionalists”, in Pagoulatos’ words, and that marriage is reflected in the cabinet makeup.

The second problem is the way mainstream parties work in Greece. Both New Democracy and socialist Pasok were founded by iron-fisted leaders in 1974 and remain top-down parties. Party leaders have no term limits and effectively dictate policy. They nominate candidates and can dismiss elected MPs for voting against the party line.

Mitsotakis’ first act was to hold a party congress to overhaul New Democracy’s constitution and make it more pluralistic. “I don’t want a party in which each person is judged by how close he is to the party illuminati,” Mitsotakis recently said.

The third major problem is that New Democracy, like Pasok, is bankrupt. Until 2014, parties entering parliament shared a roughly $70mn handout in proportion to their proportion of the vote – seven times the burden of the average German voter. This dividend was halved under pressure from creditors; but socialists and conservatives have borrowed heavily against the dividend for decades, and their drop in the polls meant they will have difficulty paying off $350mn in debt.

“From now on, New Democracy must rely almost entirely on private funding,” Mitsotakis told his MPs in his inaugural address as party leader. “I will need the support of all of you for a bold fundraising campaign. We shall ask for a little from many… We will use our dividend... almost entirely… to serve party loans, debts and commitments.” 

Making parties pay their own way, and get out of the pocket of banks, must have appealed to Greek voters, who see the mainstream political system as enmeshed with special interests.  

Clash of traditions

Mitsotakis was often referred to as the outside candidate, but he is hardly an outsider to politics. His father served as conservative prime minister in 1990-1993. His sister served as mayor of Athens and foreign minister, and lost a bid for the party leadership in 2009.

The Mitsotakis clan earned a reputation as reformist long before Kyriakos’ ran for prime minister. When Kyriakos’ father, Konstantine, became premier in 1990, the state controlled some 70 percent of the economy. The elder Mitsotakis embarked on an ambitious privatisation programme. He liberalised banking, air transport and telecommunications. A series of public-private partnership deals created the new Athens airport, the Athens Metro, its ring road and Europe’s longest cable-stayed bridge over the Corinthian Gulf. The government fell before it could set into motion plans to sell public land and privatise refineries and new power plants.

At the antipode of reformism stands the dominant strain of borrow-and-spend populism, exemplified by Kostas Karamanlis, the nephew of the party’s founder, the last New Democracy leader to the party to outright victory in 2004.

Karamanlis’ government was not the squeaky clean operation Mitsotakis would now like to run. In March 2007, when Karamanlis was prime minister, two equity brokerages with connections to the conservatives had their licenses suspended, after the Hellenic Capital Market Commission revealed that they artificially inflated the price of government bonds before re-selling them. They did this by trading them with offshore companies they owned at a huge mark-up.

The deed was doubly bad, because the bonds were sold to four pension funds, so both taxpayers and social security contributors were being defrauded; but it was to become worse.

The Karamanlis government called an early election in 2007. By ending the session of parliament early, the election prevented a report on the bonds by Greece’s independent anti-money laundering authority from being heard in plenary session.

The author of the report, Yiorgos Zorbas, later revealed that the conservatives had impeded his investigation by refusing to issue warrants he needed to follow international money trails.

Collegiality between the parties meant that no heads rolled following a parliamentary committee of inquiry, but the party leadership was clearly implicated. It is that party establishment which opposed Mitsotakis’ election in 2016, and suggests the enormity of the task he has faced redesigning the party’s values.

Mitsotakis spoke of a “reboot” of New Democracy as a “party of principle”, displaying “transparency and accountability in everything it does”. He believes that “good governments are formed in the opposition.”

Mitsotakis undoubtedly set high goals for himself, New Democracy and his government. “Politics created the problem, and politics will solve it,” he is fond of saying. “But not politics as we knew it; a different kind of politics that puts truth, follow-through, keeping your word, working hard and putting meritocracy first,” he once said.

He must now work extremely hard to vindicate his supporters, and values that his party has not always stood for.

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