Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras insists on challenging opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis to a TV debate. He believes he comes across better, as does everyone in SYRIZA and possibly even most people in New Democracy. I admit that I thought so too, from 2016, when Mitsotakis was elected president of ND, until now. It is in this context that I thought making the confrontation personal was the wrong tactic as it benefited Tsipras, who clearly had the advantage there.
It is a fact that the leader who is ahead in the polls and has already won in two rounds of elections has no reason to expose himself to a public TV battle with his main opponent. Instead, Mitsotakis could appear in a televised debate or two with all the political leaders and avoid a direct confrontation with his charismatic rival.
And, by the way, there are plenty of examples in our recent political history of leaders who were not considered particularly charismatic (Costas Simitis and Constantinos Mitsotakis) winning elections.
Still, it is not at all certain that Mitsotakis would lose in a direct confrontation with Tsipras. Charisma is often the result of a positive climate and only gets stronger when combined with the air of a winner. Likewise, it can shrink in the face of defeat. However charismatic he is, the leader who lost needs to acknowledge his mistakes and explain why he made them. A leader looking upbeat and pleasant under the shadow of a loss would appear odd, so the smile will perforce be replaced by a thoughtful frown.
Facing a popular leader and winner of the previous general elections is very different to facing a politician trying to recover from a double loss. The atmosphere is different, the stakes are different, and so is the mind-set of the two rivals and most importantly their image in the public mind, particularly among the more moderate voters of the middle ground, who are so crucial in electing governments.
Every time the prime minister turns on the charm to boast about his accomplishments, the opposition leader can call him out, perhaps in a less charming but calm and direct manner, and just tell him that what he is saying to him in the debate he said to the voters a few weeks ago and they overwhelmingly voted against him.
Caution, of course, is vital, as the line between confidence and arrogance can be very fine. If Mitsotakis succeeds in exuding the former without succumbing to the latter, he could even win a TV debate against Tsipras. In such a setting he would also have the “advantage” of everyone expecting him to be overshadowed by his more charismatic rival. Having watched a large number of debates in the US – in congressional, presidential primaries and general elections – I can say that low expectations can be a candidate’s greatest weapon.
But at the end of the day, Mitsotakis’ strongest card is the momentum from his recent victory. No matter how well a rival plays on camera, when you’ve beat him by more than nine points just weeks earlier, his charisma may be a hindrance rather than a help.