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A Greek form of Triangulation
At the World Economic Forum earlier this month, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had a lengthy discussion with the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Ravi Agrawal, about political, geopolitical and economic issues.
Foreign Policy picked up on a phrase used by the Greek PM when it published the transcript of the interview under the title: Kyriakos Mitsotakis on How to Counter ‘Davos Arrogance’. The idea that Greece is in a position to teach the world lessons could be seen as arrogant itself, but, then again, hubris is a Greek word.
Setting this aside, the most interesting aspect of the discussion for a domestic audience was not what the international community can learn from Athens, but what Mitsotakis revealed about how he has carved out such a dominant position for himself and his government in Greek politics.
He attributed his centre-right administration’s success to a “new form of triangulation.” Triangulation is a term that has been in use in political strategy since the 1990s. It is attributed to the then US President Bill Clinton’s chief political adviser, William Morris. It involved his boss cherry picking positions and policies from the right and left and then placing himself above both wings of the political spectrum to appeal to all sides and protect himself from criticism.
In a PBS interview, Morris described it as “Hegelian in concept: the idea of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.”
“I felt that what you should do is really take the best from each party's agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party,” Morris said. “So from the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare. From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits.”
In Davos, Mitsotakis explained how his government has adopted policies that do not just appeal to the centrist liberals that he identifies with most, such as tax cuts and deregulation, but also ideas that resonate with voters on the left and right. In the case of the left, he pointed to the state stepping in to provide subsidies, which New Democracy has relied on during Covid, as well as the energy and cost-of-living crises. For the conservatives on the right, he argued that he and his ministers have acted as “responsible patriots”, citing Greece’s “rather effective” management of the migration issue as an example.
This was probably the frankest admission that Mitsotakis has made since coming to power in 2019 about how his government’s policies knit together as part of a broader strategy to keep voters happy and his ratings high. As Dick Morris’s comments indicate, there is nothing new about an incumbent leader trying to deny his opponents political space and ingratiate himself with as many voters as possible.
Mitsotakis and his strategists have executed this game plan very well. It was evident in last summer’s elections, which were more of a procession than a contest, and is still visible in the current opinion polls, although two surveys this week show support for the government dipping. New Democracy remains dominant and enjoys significant public support for many of its policies.
Although Mitsotakis has shown a good deal of political savvy to box in his opponents, he is helped by the fact that the opposition generally lacks any long-term strategy and is mostly reliant on short-term efforts to grab voters’ attention. This was highlighted by the way events have played out regarding the same-sex marriage bill.
The two main progressive parties, SYRIZA and PASOK, were caught out by the fact that Mitsotakis decided to advance draft legislation that clearly made part of his party uncomfortable, and then chose to allow dissenting New Democracy MPs to abstain from the upcoming vote on the bill. In doing so, he wrongfooted his opponents, who initially suggested they would not get the PM out of a bind by supporting the legislation if government MPs were not forced to vote for it. Within less than 24 hours, SYRIZA and PASOK had changed their position and started indicating they would back the law change.
The sudden switch was prompted by their realisation that if the bill failed to pass because of their stance, they would be seen as having stood in the way of a progressive social reform, which most of their supporters, and centrist voters, back.
It is much easier to outmanoeuvre the opposition, though, when the playing field is tilted in your favour. The mainstream media scrutiny of the government’s policies is usually nothing more than light touch. A case in point is the cost-of-living crisis. Since inflation started to have an impact on households, the government has relied almost exclusively on doling out money to consumers, whether it is to pay for their electricity bills, supermarket shopping or fuel. Over 2022 and 2023, spent the equivalent of more than 7 pct of Greece’s GDP on this support, which was more than double the eurozone average, as the IMF’s latest Article IV country report showed.
Mitsotakis had raged at the previous, SYRIZA-led government, for using handouts. He accused his predecessors of attempting to create a political clientele in this way. New Democracy, though, has argued that its measures are temporary to address what was perceived to be an “imported” problem.
Calls from opposition parties for cuts to consumption taxes and successful examples of inflation being tackled in other countries were swatted away by government officials and rarely pursued by the media. Inflation averaged at 3.5 pct last year, but food prices were rising by 9 pct at the end of the year. Over the last few weeks, seeing that high prices are not vanishing and that the public is concerned, the government has changed its tune and has begun suggesting that “greedflation” is to blame. The handouts, which have been phased out as fiscal conditions become tighter, have been replaced by fines for suppliers for unfair pricing. The new narrative, and policy, has been accepted unquestioningly, even applauded, in much of the local media.
Beyond their own ineptitude, one of the reasons that Greek opposition parties are so fixated on short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy is because they are desperate for attention. When the media, the main conduit for messages to reach the electorate, hails almost everything the government does as a success and skirts around whatever brings its decisions into question, it is difficult for anything anyone else has to say to be heard or to resonate.
There is another vital element to the apparent success of the triangulation strategy in Greece. Not only is there scant scrutiny from the media, apart from some notable exceptions, the country’s institutions have also proved inept at providing any checks or balances. It is much easier for a government to block off the political space available to the opposition when it is not held accountable for anything it does.
Over the last few years, under this government’s watch, Greece has experienced its largest ever wildfires, worst flooding, deadliest train crash and biggest illegal wiretapping scandal (largely uncovered by independent journalists). The level of accountability for the state or public officials in any of these events has been virtually zero. The judicial system is moving at its usual glacial pace, while parliamentary oversight has been held hostage by political interests.
This worrying situation was highlighted this week. While nobody involved in the apparently extensive use of the Predator spyware in Greece to monitor journalists, politicians, public officials and businessmen has faced trial yet, the journalists who were responsible for exposing the scandal were forced to appear in court in Athens this week to face a defamation lawsuit.
Also, almost a year after the train crash in Tempe, which caused nearly 60 deaths and dozens of injuries, there is no sign of anyone, bar a lowly station master, being held accountable for systemic failings. In December, The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) in Athens brought charges on Monday against 23 suspects, which include 18 public officials, for crimes relating to the execution of contracts for restoring remote traffic control and signalling systems on Greece’s rail network. The Greek courts, though, have not yet brought any charges of corruption, or any other offence.
On Friday, Politico reported that the Greek authorities ignored a request from EPPO to take action over the potential criminal liability of two former transport ministers in connection to the Tempe train crash.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties and relatives of the train crash victims are raising concerns that the parliamentary inquiry into the accident is turning into a whitewash, as was the case when MPs investigated the illegal wiretapping issue and claims it was linked to the PM’s former general secretary. As the ruling party, New Democracy has the majority of MPs on these panels and is able to block requests from opposition lawmakers regarding the direction and scope of the inquiries, just as previous governments have done.
On Wednesday, the Tempe committee heard from Maria Karystianou, who lost her 20-year-old daughter in the crash. Representing the victims’ families, she accused the committee of being too willing to hear excuses that were easily refutable, and of deliberately excluding testimony from key stakeholders that could prove awkward for the government. Karystianou also told the inquiry that the site of the accident was paved days after the crash, potentially damaging crucial evidence relating to the crash and the fire which followed.
“How can I know that an issue which involves people from the top of the political system will be investigated fully and in depth?” she asked the committee members. “Based on the record of such committees, effectiveness is doubtful.”
Karystianou’s appearance has gone viral on social media, striking a chord with those who feel that for all the economic, and other, success stories projected on their screens and beyond Greece’s borders over the last few years, there is something rotten at the country’s heart. The economic and political instability of the crisis years may be a thing of the past. In some measure, the pace and direction of the recovery is the result of the current government’s policies, albeit fuelled by extraordinary EU funds, and tourism and construction booms. But it has come at a price. The desire and ability to hold those who govern accountable is diminishing, dissenting voices are being marginalised and the scenes of potential crimes are being cemented over.
Perhaps, the real lesson Greece has to teach global leaders is that a weak opposition, a mostly compliant media and compromised institutions can virtually guarantee you political dominance – that is the triangulation in question. But this is no cure for any type of arrogance. It is a breeding ground for hubris.