Greek election front-runner keeps campaign unusually low-key

Greek opposition New Democracy party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis waves to supporters at the end of his speech during his main election campaign rally in Athens,on Thursday, July 4, 2019. Greeks head to the polls in early general elections on Sunday, July 7. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
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On an exhaustive tour of Greece’s blue collar towns and city suburbs, Kyriakos Mitsotakis has a spring in his step. It’s no wonder – he’s the overwhelming favorite to become the country’s next prime minister as the unlikely heir of a powerful political family.

Arriving at Lavrio, an old factory town near Athens, residents form a cluster of welcome next to a seafront cafe. Mitsotakis steps out of his car and switches into casual campaigning mode, crouching to chat to children, greeting young men with an arm-wrestle handshake, hugging pensioners, and using his height to snap cellphone photos.

He chooses a microphone over a podium and in less than 10 minutes hits the highlights of why he thinks voters should back his conservative New Democracy party: Greece, he argues, needs to embrace a pro-business culture after a decade of economic turbulence, fix its law-and-order problems, and continue making its once heavily over-staffed state bureaucracy more efficient.

A crowd of around 50 people listen politely, eager to get another chance to meet the man strongly favored to win in Sunday’s general election.

The 51-year-old Mitsotakis heads to the election with a big lead in opinion polls over left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who has led the country for the past four years as Greece struggled to bring an end to its crippling financial crisis and financial dependency on others, as well as cope with a massive refugee crisis — more than a million people arrived on Greece’s eastern islands in 2015-16 in dinghies and unsafe boats before trying to make their way to the more prosperous countries of central Europe.

“I want to make Greece a normal European country,” Mitsotakis told the AP, his ease with English reflecting a decade of studying in the United States at Harvard University and Stanford.

“I’m sick and tired of us being treated as the poster boy for the crisis.”

He’s not alone in that wish.

Greece has just struggled through one of its biggest crisis since World War II. Forced to seek an international bailout in 2010, Greece’s economy shrank by a quarter and unemployment had spiked to over 25 percent — double that among the young. Protests and riots became a feature of Greek life. Many were blamed for the hardship from political parties — including Mitsotakis’ predecessors at New Democracy — to Greece’s bailout creditors who demanded severe cutbacks in return for their financial help to Athens.

“As many mistakes as we made, there were also lots of mistakes made by our creditors,” said Mitsotakis. “We want to leave this period behind us.”

Mitsotakis is a pro-European conservative and should he win on Sunday, he will be confronted with an array of challenges, including renewed tension with neighbor Turkey and the ongoing draconian budget targets set by bailout lenders. Though Greece may no longer require direct financial assistance, it still needs to run a high budget surplus in order to pay off its debt, which despite years of retrenchment still stands at a colossal 180 percent or so of the country’s annual GDP.

Born into one of Greece’s best known political families, Mitsotakis is the son of confrontational conservative prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis, who led the country in the early 1990s. His sister Dora Bakogiannis later served as foreign minister, and his nephew Kostas Bakogiannis was recently elected Mayor of Athens.

“I’m very proud of my family legacy but I don’t think you’ll find many people who say they’re voting for me because I’m the son of an ex-prime minister,” he said.

Mitsotakis had not been expected to lead the party, but was elected president of New Democracy in 2016, following four straight election defeats at national, local, and European elections. He struggled to win over many powerful figures in his party who viewed him as awkward in public and lacking swagger.

The criticism faded as he took the party’s opinion poll lead to double digits and led landslide wins in regional and European elections in May. Confidence came from a punishing timetable of campaign appearances, picking small venues often in low-income areas in a bid to take on government strongholds as well as a widely-held perception of family privilege.

Aides say he survives on power naps and healthy habits — he doesn’t smoke or drink — on an intensive schedule of touring that started soon after he became leader.

Mitsotakis opted for U.S.-style town hall gatherings instead of mass rallies, a staple of Greek politics for decades, as he kept up attacks on the Tsipras government, accusing it of hammering the middle class with high taxes to avoid deeper reforms.

The taxes, Tsipras countered, helped avert a “humanitarian catastrophe” as the financial crisis caused an explosion of job losses and poverty. The prime minister has accused his opponent of maintaining far-right officials in senior party positions and adopting a mindset of austerity prescribed by the International Monetary Fund when he served in a previous government as minister for public sector reform for 18 months.

Leaving Lavrio, Mitsotakis hits back with fighting words, branding Tsipras a populist who undermined state institutions and promised too much.

“He knows he’s going to lose. The only thing he’s doing is trying to portray us as the big, bad neoliberals who are coming to power to suck people’s blood, or whatever. It doesn’t resonate with anyone. It’s so yesterday.”q