Greece has a new prime minister. Kyriakos Mitsotakis took office immediately after leading his conservative New Democracy party to a landslide victory in the country’s general election on July 7. His dramatic victory ended 4½ of government by Alexis Tsipras and his far-left Syriza party. And that’s why the significance of this election extends well beyond Greece: Mitsotakis has shown how a traditionally oriented party can take on populists — and defeat them.
Syriza’s left-wing populism was based mostly on anti-market bias, a bit of technophobia and a strong measure of social envy. This kind of populism can be defeated relatively easily in liberal democracies — simply because the numbers don’t add up. That leaves a government of the type led by Syriza with two options: it can either succumb to its own anti-establishment paranoia or opt for pragmatism. Tsipras ultimately tried both, neither very convincingly. The voters didn’t appreciate the blatant contradiction and grew impatient with the anemic growth. In the end, they abandoned him for Mitsotakis, the quintessential anti-populist.
The first blow to Tsipras came after an ill-advised referendum in 2015 when Greek voters, reeling from the country’s financial crisis, had the chance to take a stand on a proposed European Union bailout package. (Sixty-one percent voted “no.”) Tsipras’s plans failed miserably, and the episode transformed the prime minister from a radical naysayer into a compliant enforcer of the E.U.'s tough conditions. He ended up resorting to a left-wing populist ploy: hitting the middle class with tax increases to offer handouts to groups he groomed as his core supporters. This small-scale redistribution was not as successful as he hoped. The fierce backlash from middle-class voters led to his eventual demise.
Mitsotakis is often regarded as the scion of a powerful political dynasty. This is half true. His family was always an outlier among conservatives. His father, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, a convinced pro-market liberal, became leader of the New Democracy party in 1984 and was prime minister for 3½ years (1990-1993) without managing to control or change it. His government fell mostly because of its internal contradictions. His older sister, Dora Bakoyanni, another staunch reformist, failed to win the leadership of the party in 2009. She was beaten by a conservative, Antonis Samaras, whose party was responsible for her father’s downfall 16 years before.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis himself was the outsider in the party elections in January 2016. The previous year was devastating for the conservatives. They had lost two national elections and, even more crushingly, the referendum. Mitsotakis was elected as leader because the mainstream party vote was divided and he enjoyed unanimous support from independents, liberals, even leftists, who saw in him a challenger of Tsipras. He represented the exact opposite of Tsipras in almost every respect, from his résumé to his reformist agenda.
So, the question was simple. Could he beat Tsipras? Shouldn’t a Harvard-educated, market-friendly liberal be easy prey for a shrewd and ruthless opponent? Even though he managed to outrace Tsipras in polls from very early on, most people regarded this as a mirage. Tsipras seemed invincible.
The most difficult task for Mitsotakis was finding the balance between his own liberal reformist soul and the official ideology of his party. New Democracy is more conservative than most other European political groupings of its type, incorporating strong strains of nationalism, anti-market bias and traditionalism. He had to make some concessions to maintain support from the conservative core of the party. He rejected the separation of church and state, and he didn’t support Syriza’s progressive agenda on LGBT rights, or the recent compromise with North Macedonia that defused a long-smoldering dispute between the two countries.
Making pragmatic concessions, modifying your liberal credo, and adjusting to people who normally are not your preferred bedfellows — it all hints at a formula for defeating populism by co-opting some parts of of its arsenal.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis managed to achieve, almost single-handedly, the first major victory against populism in Europe. But the image of his government, with only five women among 51 ministerial positions, taking the oath of office in front of black-robed, long-bearded Orthodox priests, sent confusing signals to Greek society. Who is the real winner? The liberal Mitsotakis or the conservative elements of his party?
Yet this may be losing sight of the fundamental issue. His government, with an unprecedented number of technocrats, is well-prepared and ready to take on the task of implementing pro-market structural reforms. Most importantly, he seems determined to dominate the New Democracy party, not the other way around. The real question is whether he actually found the formula for defeating populism: stick to your principles without alienating yourself from popular sentiment. Other European leaders might learn from his example.
Aristides N. Hatzis is a professor of law, philosophy and economics at the University of Athens. He also serves as Director of Research at the Center for Liberal Studies in Athens.