The Greek prime minister has had a good run since coming to power last July, and he has coped well with the COVID-19 crisis so far. But managing the economic fallout will test his abilities to the full.
The landslide victory that Greece’s conservatives under their new leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis won in July 2019 didn’t just mark their return to power. Greece, the European country hit hardest by the financial crisis of 2008, also voted in its first post-bailout government. The price for remaining in the eurozone had been high: Since 2008, Greece lost 25 percent of its GDP and saw its unemployment rate soar by 16 percentage points. After a decade of extreme austerity measures, Mitsotakis and his Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) party represented the promise of recovery.
Mitsotakis, a 52-year-old Harvard-educated politician came to power promising a “return to normality” that many Greeks yearned for. This was particularly true for the middle classes, which had been hit hard by the taxes imposed by the previous left-wing government to meet the country’s fiscal targets. Mitsotakis’ name was already well-known on Greece’s political scene. His family is one of three that have dominated Greek politics for decades, together with the Karamanlis family (also Nea Dimokratia) and the Papandreou family (Socialist Party).
Mitsotakis’ father Konstantinos was a prominent, but also controversial political figure during the 1960s, before the military coup. He became prime minister in the early 1990s—a toxic period in Greek politics that was marked by scandals. Konstantinos’ oldest daughter Dora Bakoyannis was mayor of Athens when the city hosted the Olympic Games in 2004; she later served as foreign minister. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, however, remained in the shadow of his family for much of his career. He was an outsider of whom nobody ever believed that he would become the leader of Nea Dimokratia or prime minister.
A Liberal Centrist
Indeed, Mitsotakis has often been underestimated by his political opponents. He was first elected to parliament in 2004; between 2013 and 2015, he then served as minister of administrative reform in the last New Democracy-led government. Mitsotakis is still remembered as the minister who dismissed 5,000 civil servants to meet the strict conditions of Greece’s second bailout program. For that, he was criticized as a tough neoliberal, making many enemies in the public sector.
In fact, Mitsotakis is more of a liberal centrist within a conservative party that has moved toward the right. The people he has selected to form his government show his effort to unite different political traditions within his party, including nationalist, liberals, and non-political technocrats. However, Mitsotakis’ government is made up mainly of men, and the few women occupy junior roles.
Initially, Mitsotakis’ agenda was focused on cutting taxes and creating jobs by bringing domestic and foreign investment to the country. His well-publicized “strategic priority” was the reduction of the primary surplus targets that were imposed by the European institutions which still keep a close eye on the country’s finances. However, his plans for an economic resurgence have been overshadowed by three serious challenges: the refugee crisis, tensions with Turkey, and the coronavirus outbreak.
Dealing with the Refugee Crisis
Mitsotakis was also elected on the promise that he would handle the ongoing refugee crisis better, but his government is still struggling with the same issues that the previous government had to grapple with. During his first months in office, the flows of migrants were at their highest since the now-defunct EU-Turkey agreement was concluded in 2016, and the new government found itself in a very difficult position.
There are nearly 100,000 asylum seekers in Greece, most of them on the islands of Lesvos, Kos, Chios, and Samos. It is clear that local communities have reached their limits as far as taking in refugees and migrants are concerned. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, pointed out on a recent visit to Greece that “hospitality and patience are less visible than before.”
Mitsotakis’ government did take steps to speed up asylum application processes. Deportations were made easier, as were transfers of refugees from the islands to mainland Greece. However, it took Mitsotakis six months to realize that it had been a huge mistake to abolish the Migration Ministry and to set it up again.
The Trouble with Turkey
Greece’s refugee crisis is made more difficult by the second challenge facing its prime minister: Dealing with his country’s historically difficult neighbor, Turkey, and in particular the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tensions between Turkey and Greece have been exacerbated by Erdogan’s threats and actions over migrants. Mitsotakis found himself in the middle of a new border crisis as Turkey’s president carried out his threat to open the gates to Europe for migrants and refugees. Overnight, thousands of people were brought to the north-western land border between Greece and Turkey.
Mitsotakis responded by mobilizing EU support, bringing European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, and the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, to the country in a highly symbolic move, stressing that not just Greece’s, but Europe’s frontiers were being threatened. He also reinforced Greece’s sea and land borders and extended a razor wire-topped fence along the Evros River.
The geopolitical crisis with Turkey, however, doesn’t stop there. Under Erdogan, Turkey has become more nationalist and more aggressive, seeking to expand its role in a new world marked by great power competition. Tensions between the two countries, which are NATO allies but also historically rivals, have also escalated over energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey was angered by gas and oil explorations planned off the coasts of Greece and Cyprus and moved ahead with its own drillings. Then Erdogan went further by signing a maritime boundaries agreement with the UN-backed Libyan government in a move to show to both Greece and Cyprus that Turkey cannot be ignored in the region.
Athens regards this as a direct challenge to its national sovereignty, as the Turkish-Libyan accord ignores the island of Crete and its Exclusive Economic Zone that is situated between Libya and Turkey. Like his predecessors, Mitsotakis is trying to strengthen strategic alliances to deal with this crisis, mainly with France, other EU member states, and the United States. But he has also made it clear that if there is no solution at a political or diplomatic level, then the dispute over maritime zones must go to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The war of words between Turkey and Greece was still ongoing, when the coronavirus outbreak took over the global agenda. The pandemic forced the Turkish president to suspend his “open gates” action.
The coronavirus outbreak in Greece could have been a disaster, as its health sector was significantly downsized and weakened during the financial crisis—today, it is nearly 40 percent smaller than in 2008. Nevertheless, Greece currently has one of the lowest number of cases and deaths in the EU.
The Greek prime minister has been praised for reacting to the crisis much faster than neighboring countries: he imposed a lockdown when there had not yet been a single death in the country. Trusting the experts and took that risk in order to protect citizens’ lives and shore up the health system as everybody knew that it wouldn’t be able to cope with a major outbreak.
Mitsotakis has also been winning the communication game by choosing two relatively unknown person to speak for the government during the crisis. Sotiris Tsiodras, a low-profile professor of infectious diseases, and Nokia Chardalias, the hard-hitting deputy minister for civic protection, have proven to be a perfect couple to address the public and explain the measures in daily briefings.
However, Mitsotakis’ next challenge is on the horizon. The latest IMF forecasts show that Greece could see a ten percent decline in GDP—the biggest in COVID-19-stricken Europe. Unemployment is likely to rise again sharply. Problems on the labor market had already started appearing before coronavirus hit, and the support the opposition is giving Mitsotakis him for the sake of public health is not going to last forever.
There is already some criticism over financial support to businesses and workers. And although ideologically Mitsotakis is a strong supporter of the private sector, he is obliged to invest more in the public health system in order to prepare the country for the months to come. Yet his popularity, which is still high, may well see him through.