After the poor result of the elections on May 21, the leader of the Greek opposition and former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sent a very clear message to his party, the leftist Syriza formation. "If I resign, I will name Efi Akhtsioglu as successor," he said, according to sources of the formation. It was not an official announcement, but all sectors of Syriza interpreted that it would be so. Akhtsioglu also believed it and began to prepare for the position. But in Greece what is planned almost never happens.
In recent weeks, a virtually unknown name has emerged: Estéfanos Kaselakis. It is an elegant man, 35 years old, raised in the United States, married to another man, former Goldman Sachs executive, collaborator of Joe Biden's Democratic Party. As if that were not enough, son of a shipowner and CEO of a shipping company, with the symbolic burden that this implies in Greece. Too liberal for the communists of the KKE. Too modern for everyone. But its supporters believe that this is its main virtue: that it does not fit, that it is disruptive, that it is something new.
And last Sunday the surprise broke out: Kaselakis overtook Akhtsioglu in the first round of the party's primaries. The newcomer won 44.9% of the votes of the affiliates, nine points more than the woman who seemed destined to succeed Tsipras. The two will face off next Sunday to decide who leads the Greek opposition and the main left-wing party.
Candidate Efi Akhtsioglu, after voting in the Syriza primaries, on September 17 in Athens. ALEXANDROS VLACHOS (EFE)
Until last Sunday, Akhtsioglu seemed the consensus figure. A 38-year-old lawyer, she has been active on the left since she was a teenager and counts as her main merit having been Minister of Labor in the Tsipras Cabinet, a complicated position from which she emerged successfully. At the recent party congress he presented a programme for a new left-wing government which the local media highlighted as detailed and coherent. Woman, young, prepared and with the support of all sectors of the party. All in favor. Until Kaselakis arrived.
Back to the tie that Tsipras discarded
In 2015, at the height of the euro crisis, EU partners — most notably then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel — pressured Tsipras to make a savage spending cut. The young Greek leftist was then forced to renounce many of his principles. But he stood firm on symbolic issues, such as never wearing a tie. The winner in the first round of the primaries dresses, however, in tailor's suits and does not disgust the perfectly tight Windsor knots on expensive shirts.
Nor does he shy away from defending topics that until recently were taboo among Greek progressives: he wants Greece to be a secular country in which the state is separate from the church. That LGTBI people can marry and adopt children. That the army be professional, in a country in which the left has never stood out for the criticism of military service, still in force. End the clientelist relationship between the government and big business. His critics reproach him that his program is too generic and never specifies anything.
The new fashionable man of the Greek left has received homophobic insults, insinuations and scorn since he presented his candidacy. Both from the right and from the left. They are not unlike the sexist insults, innuendos and scorn that have peppered criticism of Akhtsioglu.
Kaselakis is new, but he's not alone. He returned from the United States to stand in the June elections for Syriza, but failed to be elected. From the beginning, its main supporter in public is the former minister Pavlos Polakis. But his most relevant supports are those that were not seen at first glance: the candidate's main adviser is deputy Yorgos Tsipras, the brother of Alexis, the former prime minister. After the victory in the first round of the primaries, both Yorgos Tsipras and figures very close to his brother have decided to show their support in public.
More and more voices in the party claim that, in reality, Alexis Tsipras himself is driving Kaselakis' candidacy, although officially he remains neutral. Sources familiar with the renewal process affirm that the predisposition of the former president for the new candidate is not due to internal reasons, but because he would have a greater chance of defeating the current prime minister, the conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis. It is not that Tsipras is now against Akhtsioglu, but that she does not consider it a sufficient revulsive.
The rerun of the elections in June was painful for Syriza. New Democracy swept with 40.5% of the vote, while the left-wing party only got 17.8%. Tsipras had to resign and left quietly. He spent a long time in the U.S.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the conservative prime minister, does not only have a comfortable absolute majority in parliament. It also enjoys a firm media, cultural and political hegemony. Partly thanks to its own merits, but also because of the weakness of the left. The supporters of Kaselakis do not seek so much to solve the problems of the progressive camp, but to find a kind of "Mitsotakis of the left" who can dispute the government with the conservatives. The paradox, they say, is that whoever wants to be the new Tsipras will have to be totally different from Tsipras. And, following that reasoning, Kaselakis seems like the perfect candidate.
Efi Akhtsioglu did not believe that such progressivism could find sufficient support on the Greek left. She was so sure that she couldn't even hide her anger at the first-round result of the primaries and declared that voters didn't know what they voted for. Akhtsioglu said a debate between the two was needed to clarify which proposals the militants are choosing. Kaselakis, as if he were an aikido fighter, channeled his opponent's blow and returned it more strongly: "It's time to stop fighting each other to do it against Mitsotakis."
The differences seem to be so great, not only in program but in political culture, that the first voices have already appeared predicting a split if Kaselakis wins. It would not be the first time in Syriza. The truth is that, whoever wins next Sunday, will look at a complicated scenario. On October 8 there are municipal elections and New Democracy aspires to sweep the left again. It's not an easy way to start.
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