Greece appears poised for era of New Democracy after decade of turmoil

Party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis rides wave of discontent in quest for victory in July 7 snap election

Leader of Greece's main opposition New Democracy conservative party Kyriakos Mitsotakis waves to supporters as he arrives to present his pre-election program in Athens, Greece June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
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For those who do not know of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the chances are that after Sunday they will.

The US-educated former finance analyst and investment consultant wants to be the man to lead Greece out of a lost decade of economic chaos and political upheaval.

The son of former Greek prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, the leader of the centre-right New Democracy party is riding high in the polls before Sunday’s snap general election.

New Democracy pulled ahead of leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party in recent European elections, forcing the Greek leader to move October’s poll into the country’s crucial tourism season.

Local elections on June 2 dealt another blow to Mr Tsipras as New Democracy won control of 12 out of 13 Greek regions and took Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city.

Mr Mitsotakis, 51, a father of three and a fluent English speaker, could find his in-tray full after Sunday’s vote.

A failure to win an overall majority in Greece’s 300-seat parliament could require horse-trading with smaller parties to come up with a coalition capable of governing.

Greece has not had a one-party government since 2011 and a second round of voting in mid-August is not impossible, especially if there is a low turnout on Sunday.

Given that New Democracy is unlikely to do deals with the far-right Golden Dawn party or Greece’s communists, that could mean cobbling together a majority with centrists, nationalists, independents and other right-wingers.

This is just the first hurdle Mr Mitsotakis could face.

Greece still has troubled relations with neighbouring Turkey. Turkish drillships operating in the Eastern Mediterranean have recently exacerbated a war of words between Athens, Ankara and Nicosia.

The country hosts more than 60,000 refugees, UN figures for May show. More than 14,000 of these live in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands and a long-term solution to the issue is unclear.

Economically, Greece is still feeling the effects of years of austerity policies. EU figures put Greek unemployment at 18.5 per cent in April – the highest in the bloc. That figure rises to almost 40 per cent for people aged between 15 and 24.

It is among this group of young people that new voices will be heard. Sunday will be the first Greek election in which the voting age is reduced to 17.

Among these first-time voters is high school pupil Giota Lourida, 17, from western Greece. She remains unpersuaded by the polices of Mr Tsipras and Mr Mitsotakis.

"I believe most first-time voters and especially people my age haven't decided yet," she told The National.

“We are young and fed up with the government for so many reasons but at the same time we don't have a party that completely reflects our opinions and ideas.

“From what I've heard, most of my classmates will either vote what their parents advised them to or they don't know what exactly to vote for and will probably abstain.”

Greek Prime Minister and leader of Syriza party Alexis Tsipras addresses supporters during a pre-election rally in Athens, Greece, June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Greek Prime Minister and leader of Syriza party Alexis Tsipras addresses a rally in Athens on June 18, 2019. Reuters

Ms Lourida is also angry about another issue that has racked Greek politics for decades – the wrangle over what is now called North Macedonia.

Mr Tsipras struck the compromise Prespa Agreement in June last year with the leader of then Macedonia, Zoran Zaev.

But many Greeks, particularly in the north, were incensed by what they regard as a betrayal.

“Not only me but loads of people are so disappointed with the way this issue was handled by the present government,” Ms Lourida says.

“People were furious – still are – and there were protests not long ago. Even the schools were closed by students.

“As far as I'm concerned, this was one of the biggest mistakes this government made that offended us as a nation and won't be forgiven.”

Mr Mitsotakis says he will respect the Prespa deal but in April he insisted Greece should “retain the right to block” North Macedonia’s path to EU membership if Athens’ “national interests are not met”.

But Nick Malkoutzis, editor of the Greek economic and political analysis website Macropolis, thinks the Macedonia issue has lost its punch.

“The Macedonia name deal met with a wave of fury that seems to have run its course and the vehement opposition to the agreement is now mostly limited to a narrow group of voters,” Malkoutzis says.

He says that of greater concern for the next Greek leader is moving the country out of the austerity era.

“The overarching issue is trying to come up with an idea of where Greece goes after a decade of crisis," Malkoutzis says. "It's about developing a narrative for Greece away from the bailouts, recession and political tumult of the last few years.

"It's the first time in a while that Greek politicians have been challenged to think years ahead rather than just a few months at a time, while implementing policies agreed to with the country's lenders.”

Mr Mitsotakis has promised to lower Greek business tax from 28 to 20 per cent within 24 months and reduce property tax by almost a third in two years.

Income taxes will be lowered and VAT will be divided into two categories of 11 and 22 per cent.

Mr Mitsotakis has insisted to EU creditors that these tax cuts will pay for themselves, fuel economic growth and still enable Greece to meet its debt repayments.

Greece’s civil service can also expect some changes. Mr Mitsotakis has committed his party to hiring just one public servant for every five who leave, and has promised to bring in non-politicians and technocrats to overhaul the entire sector.

“Coming out of the crisis, the Greek economy is desperate for foreign investment,” Malkoutzis says. “Without it, growth and job creation will be limited and the social wounds created during the past decade will heal too slowly.

“The next government will be judged, to a large extent, on whether it creates the proper conditions for sizeable foreign investment in Greece.

"This will require an attractive and stable tax system, simplification of legislation and zoning laws, and a more efficient public administration, including judiciary.”

A Mitsotakis government would have its work cut out, and the New Democracy leader has his sceptics, even within his party.

Leonardos Kaloudas, a law student in Athens and a member of the party’s youth wing, backs the “open-minded and knowledgeable” party leader, but admits that even some New Democracy voters “don’t agree with his open and innovative decisions”.

Mr Kaloudas still supports Mr Mitsotakis’s reform programme and pro-business policies.

“Co-operation with investors from abroad could affect the national economy positively, create new jobs and widen economic opportunities in general,” he says.

Sunday’s vote is not a foregone conclusion, and Mr Tsipras is a wily political operator. New Democracy is aware of this and is warning its supporters against apathy.

The party is desperate to avoid another election in August, which would be held under a simple proportional representation system – pushing the conservatives towards an unlikely co-operation arrangement with Mr Tsipras’s party.

Speaking in Halkidiki in northern Greece on Sunday, Mr Mitsotakis told voters: “There is no justification for abstaining or discounting the election result.”

It could be a long, hot summer for Greece’s electorate.