A New Conservative Dynasty Rises in Greece

New Democracy party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis (center) greets supporters during a preelection campaign two days ahead of the elections for the European Parliament in Athens on May 22, 2019.

Source ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because the economically troubled nation is trying something new.

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In some ways, Kyriakos Mitsotakis was born to be prime minister. A product of one of Greece’s main political dynasties, he collected a mass of elite credentials overseas — bachelor’s from Harvard, master’s in international relations from Stanford, an MBA from Harvard, stints at Chase Investment Bank and McKinsey & Company consulting in London.

But the 51-year-old has made a political career out of being the outsider, no matter that he was the son of a prime minister. And with Sunday’s decisive win by his New Democracy party, Mitsotakis takes the reins of a perennially troubled nation that has swung right out of a dissatisfaction with its left-wing leadership.

“The Greek people gave us a strong mandate to change Greece. We will honor it to the full,” Mitsotakis said Monday after he was sworn in to replace the left-wing Alexis Tsipras, the new leader’s suit and tie a marked contrast to the open collars favored by his predecessor. “Hard work begins today. I am completely confident that we will prove equal to the challenge.”

The constant undermining of [Mitsotakis] allowed him to grow out of an environment in which expectations were actually quite low.

Dimitris Tsarouhas, professor at Bilkent University in Turkey

The youngest of four children of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, who was prime minister in the early 1990s, Kyriakos Mitsotakis made his political mark as a free-market conservative following a career as a venture capitalist. He rose to prominence implementing large portions of the government reforms mandated by Greece’s second bailout from the European Union, including chopping down the country’s public sector.

But his party lost power in the popular backlash to those policies, electing Tsipras and the left-wing Syriza party in 2015. A year later, Mitsotakis was elevated to lead the New Democracy party in opposition — much to the surprise of political observers.

“When he got elected about three years ago, he was very much seen as the outsider,” says Dimitris Tsarouhas, an associate professor in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey. “But he has been able to gradually, over time, overcome this kind of argument of him being nonelectable by winning successive elections.”

The wins started to pile up at the local and regional levels. But even after New Democracy topped Syriza in the European parliamentary elections six weeks ago, Tsarouhas points out, Tsipras continued to ridicule his foe’s awkward public speaking style and paint him as unelectable.

Not so: New Democracy’s 39.8 percent of the vote Sunday gives Mitsotakis 158 seats in the 300-member parliament, a comfortable governing majority. Syriza came away with 31.5 percent of the vote and, just as significantly, the far-right Golden Dawn party drew less than 3 percent — so it won’t be represented in Parliament.

For Mitsotakis, it turned out that all the talk around his lack of speaking chops did him a favor: “What Tsipras was claiming, the constant undermining of him, allowed him to grow out of an environment in which expectations were actually quite low,” Tsarouhas says.

Now comes the hard part. Mitsotakis has to sort out a stagnant economy. His party campaigned on negotiating more lenient terms for Greece’s third bailout, but the firm word from Brussels came down on Monday that its required budget surplus of 3.5 percent of GDP will not change — meaning Greece will need to continue the spending cuts it says have hampered its recovery.

Mitsotakis will have to find ways to keep Greece’s international creditors happy while simultaneously keeping local Greeks untouched. He’s pledged to lower taxes and create jobs but will remain hampered by a public debt hovering around 180 percent of gross domestic product.

The honeymoon may not last, but for now, he’s bringing a change in outlook and direction. 

“He’s particularly liked among the business people, by the technocrats, liked by managers and liked by the country’s intellectual, political and economic elite,” Tsarouhas says. “The people at large will warm up to him if he’s able to deliver at least the core promises of his manifesto. And therefore, he will have a lot of time to grow into the office.”

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