Judge me not by my name

Kyriakos Mitsotakis returned conservatives at the helm of Greece after years of EU-imposed austerity

He is coming from a well-known family with long tradition in Greek politics. His father was among the founders of the New Democracy conservative party and served as the country's PM in the 1990s. His sister served as Greece's foreign minister and mayor of Athens in the 2000s, and his nephew was recently elected mayor of the Greek capital. Yet, in the last years he was among the most underestimated politicians in Greece. Until last Sunday.

All this was to change abruptly after Kyriakos Mitsotakis' New Democracy won a landslide victory in Greece's snap elections, and a day later he himself was sworn as the country's new PM. In a televised address after his victory was confirmed, he pointed out that the Greeks have given him a strong and clear mandate to change the country. “I am committed to fewer taxes, many investments, for good and new jobs, and growth which will bring better salaries and higher pensions in an efficient state,” Mitsotakis said.

New Democracy received 39.6% of the vote and got 158 seats in the 300-member parliament versus 31.6% for incumbent leftist PM Alexis Tsipras' Syriza. “Today, with our head held high we accept the people's verdict. To bring Greece to where it is today we had to take difficult decisions with a heavy political cost,” Tsipras told journalists, adding that he respected the will of the Greek people. The conservatives' victory was to a certain extent driven by fatigue with years of austerity, combined with high unemployment, according to analysts.

It is up to Mitsotakis to try to change the course. Seen as a liberal and reformer within a highly conservative party, he has promised to “steamroll” obstacles to business. “The people must entrust the helm of Greece to a strong hand,” Mitsotakis said during the election campaign. And after winning the vote, he vowed that Greece would proudly enter a post-bailout period of “jobs, security and growth”. “A painful cycle has closed,” he insisted. “Greece will restore ambitious growth driven by private investments, exports and innovation. All our energy is focused in that direction.”

Yet, Mitsotakis is strongly criticised by his political opponents that his pro-business platform and promised tax cuts can only credibly come at the expense of social benefits to crisis-hit families. Furthermore, in his only ministerial period so far in 2014, when he was in charge of administrative reform, he was tasked with releasing 15,000 civil service posts under pressure from Greece's creditors. The downsizing was stopped by elections, but Mitsotakis' image is of a “hatchet man”.

Born in Athens in 1968, the newly-elect Greek PM has a biography to envy. At the time of his birth, his family had been placed under house arrest by the Greek military junta that had declared his father Konstantinos persona non grata and put him to prison on a coup accusations. With the help of then Turkish Foreign Minister Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil, the family escaped to Turkey and then to France, to return to Greece in 1974, when democracy was restored.

Kyriakos graduated from Athens College, then attended Harvard University earning a bachelor's degree in social studies, followed by a master's degree in International Relations from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. In the 1990s, he worked as a financial analyst at Chase Bank and at the consultancy McKinsey & Co in London. In the late 1990s, he worked for Alpha Ventures, a private equity subsidiary of Alpha Bank, and in 1999 he founded NBG Venture Capital, the private equity and venture capital subsidiary of the National Bank of Greece, and acted as its CEO until April 2003, when he resigned to pursue a career in politics.

In 2004, Mitsotakis was first elected to parliament, but during the next 10 years he was kept in the shade despite the fact then his father was then Honorary President of the New Democracy party. Only in 2013, when the economic crisis was raging and the country was on the verge of a full-blown default, he was appointed as administrative reform minister under Antonis Samaras. Following the resignation of New Democracy's leader after the party lost the 2015 general elections to Syriza, Mitsotakis managed to get to the top despite being considered as an outsider in the leadership race.

After becoming leader of New Democracy, he needed just three years to step at Greece's helm. And in a country with a long tradition of nepotism, Mitsotakis swears by meritocracy. “Judge me by my CV, not by my name,” he insists and promises not to put any relatives in his cabinet. So far he sticks to his words. The new cabinet sworn last Tuesday relies heavily on experienced politicians who have served in previous governments, but also includes non-politician technocrats considered experts in their fields.

Mitsotakis had barely announced his cabinet selection when Greece's creditors bluntly rejected his calls to ease bailout conditions. Eurogroup finance ministers insisted key targets must be adhered to. “Commitments are commitments, and if we break them, credibility is the first thing to fall apart. That brings about a lack of confidence and investment,” Eurogroup President Mario Centeno said. And it is now up to Mitsotakis to try to balance between his promises and economic realities. And to prove he was wrongly underestimated so far.

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