Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ election to the helm of New Democracy was not expected. The center-right party was looking for the person who could beat Alexis Tsipras and embody the strong anti-SYRIZA trend. But he was not part of the traditional guard, which had turned to a Mitsotakis before in order to beat the seemingly invincible Andreas Papandreou.
For many ND veterans, Mitsotakis was too close to the center, too close to the positions of To Potami, to attract the conventional conservative voter. Or, as they often liked to say, “I don’t fancy sitting down for a glass of wine with him.” Nevertheless, he won the race for ND’s leadership, established the party’s foothold and triumphed over Tsipras. And that is because he convinced a critical mass of centrist voters he could turn the page and set the country on the path of reform.
He could not reform the party radically on the road to elections because, as we all know, a big ship is a hard thing to steer. Afterward, however, he chose to govern with a tightly knit staff that had no connections to the party. As expected, it was a decision that caused friction and bruised egos. And in a country lacking in solid mechanisms and institutions, he ended up consolidating power among just two or three people.
That said, however, the prime minister managed to maintain a balance; he went ahead with reforms (in education, digitization and security), he skirted certain vital areas (like justice), he made sure the country’s defenses were bolstered and he kept up a sufficient “repertory” for the party’s traditional audience. His political clout was unquestioned, and he was well received both inside and outside the country. He was unscathed by the anger over the lockdowns, the fires and various other mishaps along the way.
But the case with the wiretaps has changed that. It gave big and small “stakeholders” from within party ranks the opportunity they had been waiting for to express their anger at his governing the country on his own. The centrists are now trying to understand what happened and whether it was a mistake that points to a momentary lapse in judgment or a revelation about a way of governing the country that they had not associated with Mitsotakis.
The prime minister faces a tough challenge ahead. He needs to convince the people of his party that he can govern in a different way from now on – and he has to do it. He also needs to convince those who are not in the party that he can continue with certain reforms and that the wiretap affair was an exception that will not be repeated.
He faces a skeptical audience, but he does have a secret weapon in the fact that no conservative voter wants to see SYRIZA return and the centrists can’t think of anyone else to vote for. But it would be a mistake to take them for granted, because conservative voters have shown us that they’re happy to stay home on election day and centrists hate being regarded as a “hooked fish.”