Syriza leadership: After Tsipras, an ex-banker runs to rule the Greek left

Stefanos Kasselakis hopes to lead the Greek left into a new era after a series of disappointing results at the polls.

Stefanos Kasselakis casts his vote at a polling station in Athens, Greece, 17 September 2023 [Alexandros Vlachos/EPA-EFE]

Athens, Greece – This Sunday will see a showdown between two candidates vying for the leadership of Syriza, and the Greek left is abuzz with the prospect that a former banker could usher in a new era.

The main opposition party to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s right-wing New Democracy has been rudderless since the resignation of Alexis Tsipras, who stepped down after his poor performance in June’s general elections.

The emergence of Stefanos Kasselakis has come as something of a surprise. He is 35, openly gay, and has little political experience – but brings with him a sense of excitement and uncertainty.

The former banker is up against Syriza stalwart Efi Achtsioglou, who is 38 and was a minister for labour in the Tsipras administration.

Nearly 150,000 Syriza members voted last Sunday in the first round, narrowing five candidates to two.

Mockingly dubbed “the golden boy” by some for his former investment banking job with Goldman Sachs, his leadership campaign only started in August, but he led last week’s polls scooping 45.04 percent compared with Achtsioglou’s 36.21 percent.

According to the party, 40,000 new people registered to vote and voting was extended for an extra hour on Sunday evening due to high turnout.

“Many new faces came, they came because they want Syriza to have a leadership, to be a serious opposition for the country,” said Sokratis Famellos, the president of the Syriza parliamentary group.

The election is crucial for Greece’s largest left-wing party, which was booted out of office in 2019 after four years in power through a turbulent financial crisis. It has since failed to gain traction in recent elections.

Achtsioglou, initially seen as the heir apparent to Tsipras and the only woman on the ballot, is the more experienced and well-known politician, and has an explicitly left-wing agenda.

She has campaigned on a platform that emphasises wage rises, the bargaining power of workers, and fighting the climate crisis. Her approach to migration has been described by analysts and rights groups as more humanitarian, compared with New Democracy, which has faced accusations of illegally pushing people back at sea. And she has favoured boosting public infrastructure and the welfare state.

Her language includes words like “redistribution” as she pledges to fight what she sees as EU-imposed austerity. On foreign policy, she has defended Greece’s sovereign rights but aspired to the peaceful resolution of disputes with Turkey.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras (L) smiles, while he arrives for his meeting with Greek Labour Minister Efi Achtsioglou (R) at the labour ministry in central Athens on July 17, 2017. Bolstered by its third bailout programme and positive reports from the European Union, Greece is planning an imminent test of the bond market, local media said this weekend. (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP)
Then-Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras (left) seen with then-Labour Minister Efi Achtsioglou in July, 2017 [Louisa/Gouliamaki]

Kasselakis’s political positions, meanwhile, are less clear.

He has promised “transparency everywhere”, replace mandatory military service with a professional army – while providing an option to do social service, and has suggested some form of separation between church and state.

He also wants to harmonise Greek law with the most progressive legislation in Europe when it comes to LGBTQ rights as well as massively increasing public spending on education.

A relative unknown in politics, Kasselakis mounted a strong social media campaign for his candidacy.

Raised in the affluent Athenian suburb of Ekali, he was educated at an American school – the University of Pennsylvania, and cut his teeth at Goldman Sachs before founding a shipping company, SwiftBulk – the kind of career path usually associated with the Greek right.

But on the personal front, he is in a civil partnership and is outspoken about the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community in a traditionally conservative country.

His rival, Achtsioglou, is a sitting member of parliament for Syriza originally from Thessaloniki and a trained lawyer who has worked for the European Parliament.

During her ministerial tenure, she was linked to reforms and popular measures such as the increase of the minimum wage.

Georgia Nakou, a political and financial analyst focusing on Greece for MacroPolis, a Greek think tank, said Kasselakis was likely to outdo Achtsioglou, because key figures in the party have switched sides to support him.

His effect on the party’s electoral appeal, however, remains to be seen.

“Kasselakis is a sort of cipher. It’s hard to see whether he will have lasting appeal, because so much of what he claims to stand for, which is essentially centrist, progressive, cosmopolitan, has traditionally not appealed to the electorate unless it makes concessions to more conservative principles – religion, patriotism, traditional family values – which essentially gives you Mitsotakis,” she told Al Jazeera.

Kasselakis’s rise, Nakou said, was part of Syriza’s continuing identity crisis since the loss of the 2019 elections which had proved a “very ineffective opposition,” in the last years against New Democracy.

“There is a lot of speculation about where he came from and who is likely to be behind him, but the reality is it was just too easy, and that in itself is very telling.”

Fraught tensions

Tensions between the camps of both candidates have been mounting.

Achtsioglou has said Kasselakis would not be able to defeat Mitsotakis and his New Democracy party “because he has no plan and political experience”.

But Kasselakis said he represents a change from the Syriza old guard.

Georgios Samaras, assistant professor of public policy at Kings College London, noted that there was a “concerning dynamic” between the two finalists.

“These divisions are stark, and the party appears to be struggling to cultivate political unity and optimism as it transitions into the post-Tsipras era.”

Samaras said it was clear Achtsioglou had suffered because her social media campaign was less ambitious than Kasselakis’s, and that it was “disconcerting” that she had been “subjected to relentless and unjustified attacks from more centrist factions within the party”.

“These internal divisions are evidently influencing the overall quality of the election contest.”

According to him, despite Kasselakis’s social media successes, his agenda, objectives, and vision for Syriza remain “largely enigmatic”.

Nakou said Kasselakis’s rise accelerates the “slow demise” of the party, and that a “permanent split” between his supporters and those of Achtsioglou could emerge.

If the former banker is to be elected, Syriza will likely be a “very different party” that will no longer purport to represent the “radical left”, she said, adding this will signal “quite a transformation from 2015”.

Source: Al Jazeera