Kyriakos Mitsotakis faced a dilemma before deciding to run for the leadership of opposition New Democracy. He could have avoided the race completely and founded a new center-right party shaped along modern lines, but he took the plunge instead. The danger with these big traditional parties, however, is that they tend to be like a very big ships in that they're hard to steer.
New Democracy has been around for quite some time. Back in the good old days, it could rally support – as if by magic – from extreme conservatives, populist right-wingers, liberals and nonaligned centrists. The crisis, however, severed whatever tied these disparate forces together, scattering erstwhile conservative supporters to far-right Golden Dawn, ultra-conservative Independent Greeks and even left-wing SYRIZA.
ND has not always been a liberal party. When one feisty young MP asked Miltiadis Evert back in the day whether they should throw a couple of privatizations into the program, the then chairman of the party said: “Are you nuts? Our supporters don’t like that kind of thing.” Its identity, its DNA if you will, is passed down from generation to generation through unionists and party cadres dreaming of a state job. The most famous of these examples have already left the party and those that remain would have been outraged by the clear-cut positions Mitsotakis expressed in his speech at the Thessaloniki International Fair last month. These people didn’t travel up to the northern city to listen to a liberal sermon. They were there to show their face in a bid to get a civil sector job once the tide changes.
Mitsotakis has faced a tough job as he’s tried to inject new blood and new ideas into New Democracy. However, he needs to show that he is in control of his party and has a team behind him that is capable of governing. The time will come when he will have to challenge the party’s officials and make his demands. This is the only way he will convince skeptical voters that he is determined to govern in his own way and the country’s foreign partners that they won’t have to fight an entire party mechanism when it comes to implementing reforms.
Mitsotakis is trying to strike a balance that can be very elusive. The present governing forces are very adept at divide-and-conquer, and they will play ND all the way to the ballot box. Within the party, meanwhile, the threat of inertia is ever-present.
Some will argue that Mitsotakis doesn’t really need to do anything or take any unnecessary risks, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is certain to lose the next elections. They may have been right if these were different times. But today, the winners in politics are those who break with the past. From Emmanuel Macron to Donald Trump, the list is long.
Moreover, even if Mitsotakis wins the next election by sticking to the old formula, he will still face staunch resistance inside his party when he’s called upon to make certain tough decisions – which is why he needs to decide, and soon, the direction he will be steering his ship in.