Amid a corona lull, Mitsotakis may opt for snap polls
What do you do when you are a relatively new prime minister ruling a medium-size EU country that has just come out of a decade-long economic catastrophe and have managed to defeat the deadliest enemy of our times? You try to benefit from your successful management skills in order to stay in power.
I am, of course, referring to the prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose scientific team of epidemiologists chose tough restrictions against the virus and kept people in their homes from the onset of COVID-19. Greece, as a result, succeeded in cutting the number of cases by 80 percent. More impressively, it almost eliminated the number of deaths from the virus. All this goes to the credit of the prime minister who can justifiably feel better than several of his fellow EU leaders who failed to respond in time to the same enemy.
The problem with Greece, though, is that the victory against COVID-19 did not help in the present government’s efforts to push Greece out of recession toward economic stability and, ultimately, growth.
On the contrary, the whole ordeal of COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time for Greece, where everybody was getting ready for the tourism season. After hitting a tourism record in 2019 by welcoming 38 million visitors who injected 18.17 billion euros into the economy (representing 18 percent of gross domestic product), Greece was confident that 2020 was going to be even better.
There was a lot of self-confidence even in 2018 when 33 million tourists visited Greece and when some environmentalists started raising their voices about the uncontrolled overcrowding on Greek land. It was then that the term “overtourism” entered the vocabulary of environmentalists, who warned about the irreparable damage to nature and the infrastructure of touristic places. But for Greece, tourism was a valuable component of its economy, and nobody would stop it from exhausting its potential.
The sudden onslaught of COVID-19 killed overtourism, at least for the time being, almost punishing humans for overstepping their limits on the earth – or for committing “hubris,” as some would say.
The attack of the virus is expected to have a detrimental impact on the tourism business, food production, the restaurant sector and a whole range of related businesses. The expected high revenues of this year from tourism were going to contribute to the new program for economic growth. Alas, most probably, that is not going to happen.
Mitsotakis had to quickly tackle the problem by cashing in on the current success over the pandemic.
In a speech last Wednesday, Mitsotakis unveiled a plan to reopen the country’s tourism industry and boost its economy after three months in a pandemic lockdown.
“The pandemic interrupted the country’s successful course at a time when it was entering a phase of growth,” he admitted. He declared June 15 the official launch of the tourist season and announced that he would subsidize salaries and social security contributions for people working in the tourism sector. He announced measures to prevent dismissals from work with the help of an EU plan and vowed that unemployment benefits will be paid to seasonal employees. He also announced a generous reduction in taxation and a large discount of lease payments to businesses, particularly in the tourist sector. All these measures, the cost of which stand to be 24 billion euros, he announced, will apply with immediate effect.
Although the measures look generous, many analysts point out that they were mainly aiming at saving the day for the tourism sector over the summer. In the meantime, the number of tourists who will brave COVID-19 and come to Greece for a vacation is everybody’s guess. Expectations are low, and many tourism businesses have announced that they will not open this summer.
Still, Mitsotakis’ popularity keeps on rising at the expense of the main opposition. According to surveys appearing in pro-government media, the prime minister’s New Democracy has 40 percent support, putting it 20 points ahead of the main opposition Syriza, with another four opposition parties polling around or below 5 percent.
Bearing all that in mind, one cannot but think of the likely scenario of early elections before September. This September may be the end of a bad summer that brought few tourists, didn’t improve the economy and, worst of all, witnesses the possible return of the virus.
The scenario of an early election in Greece is widely talked about. However, such a scenario presumes a peaceful summer with Turkey. But the escalating tension between the two neighbors over the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean does not give a lot of hope. Any scenario in Greece’s domestic politics will also depend on Turkey’s political dynamics.