Tired of Syriza, Greece embraces a mainstream party

THE headquarters of New Democracy, a centre-right political party, is in an unexpected part of Athens. The building, surrounded by warehouses, housed a branch of a Japanese technology firm before standing derelict for years. Few other political types are nearby. The rent, at €9,800 ($10,400) a month, is a tenth of what the party’s old office used to cost. Yet the relocation, which happened in August, is also symbolic. As the opposition party has moved to a cheaper part of town, so too does it hope that it can present itself to the public as a new, improved alternative to the Greek government. With Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister (pictured, on the left), growing less popular, New Democracy may well have a chance.

It has been a miserable year for Mr Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza government. A deal struck in March by the European Union and Turkey stemmed last year’s surge of migrants through Greece to northern Europe, but left 60,000 of them stuck in Greece in conditions that are often grim. Yet this is the least of the government’s problems. In May, after much squabbling, it pushed through €1.8bn of tax increases needed to qualify for the next chunk of cash in its current bail-out package from the EU, the third since the euro crisis began in 2010. In November Mr Tsipras reshuffled his cabinet, replacing hardline leftists with younger, pragmatic folk, seemingly in order to placate Greece’s creditors, who will meet on December 5th to tweak the latest bail-out programme.

Many of the government’s reforms have been widely hated. Business owners grumble at Scandinavian-level VAT rates of 24% and a series of new taxes. From next year self-employed professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, earning over €40,000 a year are being asked to pay tax in advance for the coming year, while their average pension contributions have tripled, says Constantine Michalos, the head of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Many will be unable to bear the burden, and some have already moved their businesses to Cyprus or Bulgaria, he adds. “Uncertainty about taxes is the worst thing,” says Tina, who owns a betting shop in central Athens. “You don’t know what they’ll hit you with next.”

This is hardly what Mr Tsipras promised when he took power in 2015, vowing to end austerity and renegotiate Greece’s deal with its creditors. Syriza’s popularity has been sliding while that of New Democracy, which led a coalition government in 2012-15, has risen. It has led in the polls since December 2015, according to pollsters at the University of Macedonia. This month it was ahead of Syriza by a whopping 15 percentage points (see chart). Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was elected head of New Democracy in January (pictured, on the right), now leads Mr Tsipras on the question of who would make a better prime minister.

This is surprising. New Democracy is a long-established political party in Greece, rather than a rabble-rousing upstart. Mr Mitsotakis’s father Konstantinos was prime minister in 1990-1993, and the family name is a turn-off for voters on the left. The younger Mr Mitsotakis is hardly a rebel: before going into politics he worked for McKinsey, a consultancy, and Chase, a bank. “When you look at my résumé, [it is] as close to the establishment as you can get,” Mr Mitsotakis admits. Still, he argues that he is the “anti-establishment” candidate in his party. More convincingly, Mr Mitsotakis thinks that Greeks have had enough of chaos. If there were a snap election next year, a New Democracy offering realistic policy promises might persuade voters to abandon the hotheads of Syriza and embrace a more technocratic government. “Greece may be the first to beat populists at their own game,” he says.


source: economist.com