By Yannis Palaiologos, Politico
It was a study in contrasting political styles. As the center-right New Democracy party’s leadership race enters the final stretch, this writer attended rallies by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Harvard- and Stanford-educated scion of one of Greece’s great political dynasties, and Adonis Georgiadis, the book salesman and TV personality who has moved from the right-wing fringes to the position of standard-bearer of unapologetic conservatism. The first round of voting takes place December 20, with a majority required for an outright victory. Also in the running are Evangelos Meimarakis, the old party hand who served as interim leader between July and November, and Apostolos Tzitzikostas, the young regional governor of Central Macedonia.
In the municipal council hall of Kallithea, a suburb of Athens just south of the city center, after a warm introduction from the reformist-minded mayor, Mitsotakis delivered a polished, confident half-hour performance, without notes, emphasizing the reasons why he is the man the Greek center-right needs to recover its mojo.
He told the assembled crowd of close to 200 people, mostly middle-aged or older, that they would not only be voting for a party leader — “You will also be voting for the next prime minister of the country.” He admitted that in the past New Democracy, having “caught the populist bug,” had strayed from its liberal ideals, and he talked up his record as minister of public administration reform under Antonis Samaras — a grueling 18-month stint during which he took some important first steps toward bringing order and meritocracy to the chaos of the Greek public sector.
Mitsotakis’s speech also included a fierce indictment of the governing coalition and the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. He said Tsipras and defense minister and Independent Greeks party leader Panos Kammenos represent “the ultimate version of the old logic” that led Greece to bankruptcy.
He described the prime minister as someone who tells “brazen lies” and his government as “made up of amateurs” with no strategic plan to lift the economy out of its never-ending slump. On the day when, after many delays and much hand-wringing, the government signed a major privatization deal ceding control of Greece’s mostly decrepit regional airports to a German-Greek joint venture, he spoke out in support of the deal and attacked Syriza for its hostility towards it.
“The stake of the election is about whether New Democracy can become a modern center-right party offering a credible alternative to the governing coalition, which is clearly leading the country in the wrong direction,” Mitsotakis said.
Mitsotakis is lean, personable, younger-looking than his 47 years, and as comfortable in English as he is in Greek. This son of a prime minister and brother of a foreign minister, who worked for a decade in finance before running for public office, is a prime product of the Greek liberal-cosmopolitan elite. But the pro-European liberalism of this circle has consistently been at odds with voters’ preferences in the era of the crisis. Does he believe that the average New Democracy voter supports a liberal approach to social and economic issues?
“I have met numerous people in this campaign who feel that they are without political representation,” he responded. “These are people of a centrist disposition, active in the real economy, creating rather than complaining, despite the crisis. I believe I can represent them and thus extend the party’s appeal beyond its current boundaries.”
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As Mitsotakis was finishing up in Kallithea, his opponent Georgiadis was preparing to take the stage at a seaside hotel in Palaio Faliro, a few kilometers further to the south. Georgiadis, 43, left the ultra-right LAOS party for New Democracy in 2012 and went on to serve briefly as minister for shipping and, more consequentially, the health portfolio. As he acknowledged at the beginning of his speech — also given without notes — to a packed crowd about as large as the one Mitsotakis drew, few people are ambivalent about him: “I have either fanatical friends or fanatical opponents.”
True to form, his speech was a more muscular one that that of his former cabinet colleague — an account of how the rise of the Left, beginning in 1981 with Andreas Papandreou and the first PASOK government, was the beginning of the downfall of Greece, and how Syriza is a worse version of the old PASOK.
Part of the reason he ran for the leadership, he said, was to assert his pride in his political philosophy, in a country in which, according to him, the ideological hegemony of the Left had made people afraid to declare themselves right-wingers — “not even my fellow candidates are willing to say it.”
He also wanted to run against the prospect of New Democracy supporting the Syriza-led government in passing the measures included in the third bailout. Like Margaret Thatcher, who he invoked, he is defiantly right wing and allergic to the idea of consensus.
But the speech was not a rabid, angry affair. Georgiadis, a self-made politician, more so than any of his fellow candidates, really connected with the crowd. He mocked the prime minister (calling him “useless” is a compliment, he said), and expressed outrage that Tsipras recently urged people to buy shares in the National Bank of Greece.
“That is against the law,” he said, as the prime minister is “not a certified investment adviser” — plus, he wondered, why would anyone want to take the advice of someone responsible for shutting down the banks?
He spoke of his amazement that there are “anniversary riots” in Greek society — “where else does this happen?” — and used a well-known Greek movie from the 1960s to make his point about how Greeks came to view a career in the public sector as the best thing in life (after PASOK, he quipped, being a civil servant came to be preferred even to being a ship-owner).
The crowd lapped it up. And the curious thing was that his appeal, though populist in tone, was decidedly anti-populist in substance.
“Populism is telling the people what they want to hear,” Georgiadis says, at a meeting in his office in downtown Athens. Flanked by religious icons and old military helmets, he is only marginally less excitable in private as he is in his countless TV performances. He admits that taking the populist route — opposing the bailouts, blaming the crisis on foreigners — could have been enormously beneficial for him politically. “If I had taken that position from the start, and talked about ancient Greece, Thermopylae and all that? I would have been five times bigger than [Panos] Kammenos,” he says of the head of the junior coalition partner, who has sued him for slander.
Georgiadis says he and his brother, who are very close, didn’t speak for a year after his decision to vote in favor of the first bailout in 2010. So why did he do it? “I understood that it was the only way — logic dictated it, if we were not to go bankrupt. And as a student of Aristotle, I had to obey logic.”
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Georgiadis has followed that logic unswervingly since then, especially in his year at the ministry of health, where he distinguished himself by his reformist zeal. He takes a harder line on law and order, but on economics there is little to tell him apart from Mitsotakis. Both speak highly of each other, and it is widely assumed that if Mitsotakis makes it into the second round, Georgiadis will throw his support behind him (it is far less likely, though not unthinkable, that Georgiadis will finish among the top two).
Predictions about what will happen December 20 are particularly precarious. Given the tacit support of the former prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, Meimarakis, the interim leader until the fiasco of the failed vote November 22, is thought to be the favorite.
Mitsotakis hopes that enough centrist voters, not necessarily traditional supporters of New Democracy, will go the polls to give him a fighting chance (people can register to vote at the polling station, paying a fee of €3). But Apostolos Tzitzikostas, the untested 37-year old regional governor, has received strong backing, both by MPs and by (unknown) donors — his campaign is by far the best-financed one.
So it is entirely possible that the two candidates who are keenest to fight the battle of ideas with Syriza, and who have shown in practice that they espouse reform, will be left out of the second round.
Welcome to Greece.
Yannis Palaiologos is a features reporter for Kathimerini newspaper and the author of “The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules” (Portobello Books, 2014).