Alexis Papachelas ALEXIS PAPACHELAS

Tests of leadership

COMMENT

TAGS: Politics, Coronavirus

Only real life can test if a politician really has what it takes to lead a nation. Six months after he was elected prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis was called upon to tackle two major crises: the first one was the exploitation of migrants and refugees by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the second was the coronavirus outbreak.

They were both unexpected and fully fledged crises, in the sense that there was no textbook response to them.

Mitsotakis was widely seen as the nerdy technocrat type. It is highly likely that he studied, even better than the experts did, the measures that South Korea or Singapore took in order to stem the spread of the virus. Seen against the Greek political culture of “charismatic” leaders, Mitsotakis’ reaction might seem something of an oddity. It would perhaps be so if it were not accompanied by the imposition of swift – and, in some cases, risky – decisions, the selection of appropriate technocrats for key posts, and an overall sense that the Greek people have a solid leadership to rely on at this time of crisis.

And this last point may be the most important one. The whole teleconference thing appears to be closer to Mitsotakis’ style of governance. Ministers used to spend a lot of their time at Maximos Mansion engaging in political gossip. Now the discussion is wrapped up in 20 minutes and the monitors are turned off. The premier’s close aides are able to communicate just by looking at each other and all avoid getting caught up in meaningless marathon meetings. 

To be sure, caution is called for. The Greek state can work miracles provided the right leadership is in place. However, it still is the same dysfunctional state, with small pockets of professionalism amid the many shortcomings. It will take time before it comes up to standard. It should have been clear by now why we should not take chances with appointments to key state posts, such as hospital directors. These should be off limits when it comes to political favors and old habits.

It would be premature to herald the dawn of a different political culture in Greece. The country is certainly in the hands of a new generation. Characteristics such as professionalism and good preparation seem to have greater appeal than the cursed political “charisma.” 

Meanwhile, Alexis Tsipras put on a decent performance in Parliament, but he needs to change in practice. The opposition chief usually comes unprepared, but appears to learn with time. Should he manage to overcome his ideological obsessions and diversify the pool of technocrat aides close to him (instead of hiding them due to inner-party concerns), he would benefit himself as well as the country.

I know that more hard times lie ahead. Erdogan is not planning to back down any time soon. It will be a huge challenge to handle a de-escalation of the crisis while the virus is still around. Also, dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic will take a great deal of patience and courage. 

Politics is a marathon. Mitsotakis has only covered the first 5 kilometers. But they were some kilometers. 

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