US Congress makes Mitsotakis feel at home
We all watched him. He appeared extremely comfortable in an environment familiar to him. A graduate of Harvard and Stanford Universities in late 80s. He was abroad when his father Konstantinos Mitsotakis was prime minister at the beginning of 90s. He was also abroad at the start of his professional life when he worked in banking and financial consultancy sectors, before entering the jungle of Greek politics, as a deputy in 2004 with the liberal-conservative New Democracy party.
From his early days as a member of the Greek parliament and then a minister in 2013 in Antonis Samaras’ government, his perfect grasp of the English language earned him a lot of praise by his foreign interlocutors especially the Americans who felt at ease with someone who spoke their language as his mother tongue. But his opponents used it as a political ploy against him. Political foes, mainly from the left, saw an elitist technocratic attitude in the young minister of Administrative Reform who applied a merciless downsizing program for the Greek public sector causing the loss of thousands of jobs. His political friends, though, praised him as his tough austerity measures managed to hold back the country’s steep economic decline.
I remember asking a head of a social research company in Greece about that very energetic minister who would not hesitate in applying the most unpopular measures convinced that his economic recipe would pay back eventually. “He has lived mostly abroad. He does not know Greece; he knows the economics of the LSE (London School of Economics) and has gathered around him American educated Greek technocrats. But Greece does not operate like that” he had told me, a decade ago.
My friend was both right and wrong. Two years later Samaras’ government was defeated to be succeeded by the government of radical leftist Syriza under Alexis Tsipras. Samaras resigned from the leadership of the New Democracy party, to be succeeded by Kyriakos Mitsotakis who was seen as an outsider in the leadership race. But Mitsotakis managed to defeat Syriza in the parliamentary elections in 2019 with a comfortable majority and he is hoping for another victory in the 2023 elections.
The fast rise of Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the top job of Greece’s government exposed him to tough criticism from the opposition who attributes his success to his privileged social background as the son of a powerful political family with labyrinthine connections with big capital at home and abroad. The leftist opposition, which is still trailing behind in opinion polls, portray him as a classic neo-liberal politician who has been pushing Greece to a new economic model of privatizations run by golden boys alien to Greek realities. They blame him for caring more about big foreign investors rather than the middle and small size Greek business world. Economic hardship over taxation, soaring prices and inflation are still on the agenda.
One year before the next general elections, the terrain of political conflict is the Greek parliament. During some over- heated debates things go out of control. Especially when the battle is between the leader of the opposition and the prime minister. And there have been occasions when Mitsotakis has resorted to his American academic credentials and his linguistic aptitude to downgrade the leader of the official opposition, Alexis Tsipras, whose command of the English language admittedly, is not one of his strengths.
Mitsotakis’ speech to the American Congress this week, lasted 42 minutes during which he was applauded 37 times, 10 with a standing ovation. Five times when he criticized Turkey without naming it. He even admitted that he does not get so much applause in the Greek parliament. Certainly, was a very well-written speech, well-delivered and written by himself if we are to believe journalists close to the Greek government. The problems with Turkey were mentioned without “naming names.” But they were there in the background throughout the speech.
Some said that he looked more at ease speaking in English than in his own language.
It is too early to assess whether Mitsotakis’ Congress speech will result in concrete benefits for Greece, especially in its ongoing conflict with Turkey. At any rate, the occasion of the speech was a postponed celebration from last year for the bicentenary of the Greek uprising in 1821 against the Ottomans. And it was a speech to a friendly audience. He won international media coverage. At the same time, he silenced the opposition in his own party who still see him as an outsider. How much the effect of this “media storm” will last at home, nobody can say. Anything can tilt the balance and most of all the relations with Turkey.