A leader from nowhere, but to where?

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Image: https://www.syriza.gr/
Image: https://www.syriza.gr/

Stefanos Kasselakis was elected the new leader of Greece’s main opposition party, SYRIZA, on Friday. Based on 75 pct of the 133,700 votes counted on Sunday night, he gained roughly 57 pct of the vote, against around 43 pct for his rival Efi Achtsioglou, a former labour minister. The run-off ballot was held after Kasselakis placed first among five candidates in the first vote a week earlier. His victory looks certain to shake up the leftist party and Greek politics, but not necessarily for the right reasons and possibly not leading to an unsatisfactory outcome.

The fact that Kasselakis even had a chance of being elected leader of SYRIZA, rather than being a momentary political curiosity, probably tells us more about the state of the party and the psychology of its voters, than it does about his candidacy.

After four successive electoral defeats, including two this summer, SYRIZA appeared to be on the verge of losing relevance and its voters began to lose hope. The departure of Alexis Tsipras, the man who almost single-handedly took SYRIZA from a fringe party to one of power based on his connection with voters and political instinct (which started to desert him in recent years), was inevitable.

However, it also left the party in danger of imploding as, without Tsipras, there was a risk of its various factions turning on each other or deciding that they would be better off splitting from SYRIZA.

Former labour minister Efi Achtsioglou offered a sense of continuity in the sense she had served in Tsipras's cabinet and was one of the most prominent members of the party. She also represented change because she would be the first ever female leader of a main opposition party in Greece. However, her vision for the party's future was never clear, her communication was patchy and there were some in the party loyal to the former leader who felt bitter towards her because they suspected that she had pushed Tsipras out – a claim she strongly denied.

The other candidates did not offer any convincing alternatives. So, from virtually nowhere, Kasselakis entered an environment in which some SYRIZA members were looking for a different option. He benefited from being an outsider in the sense of not having been worn down by SYRIZA's internal politics and from being able to present himself as an anti-systemic candidate despite studying in the US, working for Goldman Sachs and claiming to be a successful entrepreneur.

Kasselakis ran a very simple campaign around key messages, such as tackling corruption and improving justice, which was backed up by a strong presence on social media with numerous short videos of him either communicating directly to voters or touring the country and meeting regular people. He gave almost no details of his political ideology or policy plans, which proved an advantage with the section of SYRIZA voters who felt it was more important to have a candidate they felt could win an election, rather than a party that stands for a specific set of values.

Some SYRIZA officials had warned before the leadership contest that the party should first hold a conference to decide the political direction it wants to take after its successive election defeats and then choose a leader that would be able to serve those beliefs. However, much of the party was desperate to move on quickly after the two disastrous elections in the summer, to put that embarrassment behind them and to ensure that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis would not be able to build on his comfortable re-election.

This gave the feeling that the single purpose of the leadership vote was to elect someone who could take on Mitsotakis at his own game. And this is exactly how Kasselakis marketed himself - as being better educated, more talented and more successful than the Greek Prime Minister. His photogenic nature and ease in front of the camera also allowed him to show he could match Mitsotakis in terms of communication, which has been one of the New Democracy leader's strongest assets since coming to power.

Kasselakis revealed that he is gay in his first campaign video. It was a bold and brave move in the macho Greek political arena, but it is worth noting that Achtsioglou was also striving to become the first ever female leader of a main opposition party in Greece. Despite talking about his sexuality, Kasselakis gave very little away about who he is beyond that. This allowed the SYRIZA members who voted for him to project whatever they wanted on him, almost like an act of catharsis after the party suffered some very difficult years in power and much disappointment in opposition after that.

So, we have arrived at the point where Kasselakis, who only appeared on the political scene when he was placed on SYRIZA state list of candidates for this summer's elections, is taking the reins of Greece’s main opposition party even though hardly anyone knows anything about him beyond the carefully constructed social media videos and small-scale public appearances.

This is unprecedented for Greek politics and, apart from exposing the flawed structures and confusion within SYRIZA, it perhaps tells us something about the state of the country's political scene.

Maybe seeing that the current government benefits so much from a slick public relations machine and a media landscape heavily tilted in its favour, opposition supporters feel that their only hope of removing Mitsotakis from power is to play by the same rules. In other words, to pick a photogenic leader who understands how to engage with voters and can attract media attention (the Greek media’s celebrity-style obsession with Kasselakis over the past few weeks has been astounding), even if they do not know what he wants to do with the power he acquires.

However, before taking on Mitsotakis, SYRIZA's new leader will first have to address unity within SYRIZA. His candidacy has energised many grassroot members but it has also exacerbated the splits within the party. There is real bitterness at the fact that some senior figures have supported Kasselakis even though he has no roots in left-wing politics and in SYRIZA.

There are doubts about whether many of those sceptical of or outright opposed to his participation in the leadership contest would be able to serve under him or continue to be part of SYRIZA. Having managed to fight off his rivals to ride the chariot to an implausible victory, Kasselakis may look up to find the horses have bolted.

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