The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly conducts analyses of events spanning the Middle East, the Balkans, and global affairs. Dr. Tomi Dimitrovski is a former Macedonian Ambassador to the Republic of Slovenia (2014-2018) and former Consul General in Thessaloniki, Greece (2007-2014). In his article titled "Local Elections in Greece 2023: Will the newly elected president of SYRIZA succeed in breaking the dominance of New Democracy?" he analyses current developments in Greece in the context of the upcoming local elections scheduled for 8 October 2023. We are publishing his article in full.
The Republic of Greece has a distinctive system of local self-government. Following its territorial reorganization in 2011, the country consists of 325 municipalities and 13 regions. In this structure, local officials serve a four-year term. The current local administration is predominantly led by mayors affiliated with New Democracy, a member of the European People's Party - EPP. The President of New Democracy (ND) and the incumbent Prime Minister of Greece is Kyriakos Mitsotakis (born in 1968).
The newly elected mayors will serve a five-year term, commencing on 1 January 2024 and concluding on 31 December 2028, in accordance with the new electoral law. A mayoral candidate can secure victory in the first round of elections by obtaining 43% plus one vote. However, on the evening of 15 October, after the second round of local elections, we will find out which party emerges victorious in the race for local self-government leadership.
Traditionally, parties jockeying for power in local self-government are New Democracy, the leading opposition party SYRIZA, and PASOK, a member of the Party of European Socialists - PES. Of course, Greek law also allows for independent candidate nominations.
The campaign for the upcoming local elections was overshadowed by the direct intraparty elections (in which party members voted) for the new leader of the far-left SYRIZA. Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (1974) resigned from the party's top position following the defeat in the parliamentary elections earlier this year. The electoral showdown with Stefanos Kasselakis (1988), now SYRIZA's newly elected leader, was the main topic in the media. However, his election at the end of the campaign may not have come as a surprise, considering his extensive media presence. Kasselakis comes from the Athenian suburb of Maroussi and was not previously known in Greek high-level politics. His mother is a dentist, and his father is a local businessman. At the age of 14, Kasselakis earned a silver medal in the Archimedes competition held by the Greek Mathematical Association, following which he went to the United States to pursue further education. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he later graduated. In this regard, Kasselakis differs from Tsipras, who had difficulties with his English language proficiency. Kasselakis also boasts prior professional experience at Goldman Sachs and presently owns a shipping company.
On 29 August this year, Kasselakis announced his candidacy in the intraparty elections of the largest opposition party, SYRIZA. With just 27 days of campaigning, heavily leveraging social media, he managed to persuade the voters and become the new president of the party.
He secured a resounding victory with 57% of the votes, out of a total of 130,000 participants in the elections. He lacks any political experience, except for his student volunteer work in Joe Biden's campaign during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries in the United States. The charismatic Kasselakis, with his affable and straightforward approach, strongly resembles his predecessor Tsipras. This is one of the pillars on which Kasselakis will strive to establish himself — as the 'neighbourhood guy' who forged his own path to success, in contrast to his primary political adversary, Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who comes from the well-known Greek political elite.
Kasselakis lives with his partner Tyler McBeth, whom he met in the United States in 2019. However, Kasselakis asserts that he does not champion a gay agenda but rather a human agenda. Kasselakis now faces a significant challenge, having indicated during his campaign his intent to bring about many changes in Greek society. Among them, he promised to abolish mandatory military service and to separate the church from the state. However, he must first complete his compulsory military service since he has lived abroad until recently and is now obligated to serve regular military service in Greece. Actually, Kasselakis returned to Greece earlier this year, just before the parliamentary elections, but failed to secure a parliamentary seat. Now that he has returned to the country and is still within the eligible age range, he will have to undergo three weeks of regular military service, with the option to buy out the remaining time. Kasselakis has expressed his wish to serve his regular military service at the country’s borders, specifically on the Greek-Turkish border.
It's still too early to tell. Kasselakis hasn't had the opportunity to influence the selection of candidates for the upcoming local elections, bearing in mind he was elected as the new leader just 14 days before the first round of local elections. New Democracy, helmed by President Mitsotakis, has been on the rise in recent years and secured a resounding and historic victory in this year's parliamentary elections.
This summer, Greece was struck by devastating wildfires and floods, resulting in loss of life and extensive material damage. It appears that the Mitsotakis government was not entirely successful in dealing with these natural disasters. However, such setbacks have not eroded the party's strong approval rating. New Democracy has managed to maintain its lead in the recent polls in Greece, with a 16 to 19% advantage over SYRIZA. After all, New Democracy is arguably the most successful party within the European People's Party family.
Kasselakis also started with a modest initial positive rating of just 32%, as measured by specific parameters employed by Greek polling agencies to gauge the ratio of positive to negative assessments of each political party leader. In contrast, his predecessor Tsipras assumed his leadership with a considerably higher positive rating of 68% back in 2008. For Kasselakis, things become even more complicated as many within the party are dissatisfied with his election. In recent polls, six out of ten respondents anticipate a split within SYRIZA. Presently, within the party is an unformal temporary ceasefire until the upcoming elections.
In recent days, in the run-up to the local elections, the results of the tourist season in Greece have been released, and the industry has once again achieved historically high results. This pertains both to the number of tourist arrivals as well as economic parameters. The current local self-government plays a significant role in the country's tourism development. Therefore, we should take into consideration the partnership between the local administration and the government in Athens, which is exclusively composed of members of New Democracy.
The position of Athens Mayor over the past four years has been held by Kostas Bakoyanis (1978). Bakoyanis, who is the nephew of Prime Minister Mitsotakis, is seeking re-election in the forthcoming polls. The capital city of Athens can boast of new investments in its metro system, as well as impressive contributions from both domestic and foreign private sector companies in the fields of housing, tourism, and entertainment. The Ellinicon project encompasses 2,000,000 square meters of top-tier investments within the Metropolitan Park of Athens.
It appears that Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, is trailing behind the capital. Although investments in the Thessaloniki metro have been progressing slowly, it is expected to be operational by 2024. Mitsotakis' objective is to make a triumphant announcement following the second round of local elections, declaring that New Democracy has emerged victorious in all 13 regions, once again painting Greece blue in reference to the party's colour.
A SYRIZA victory in terms of mayoral mandates in the upcoming local elections currently appears improbable. However, the election of Stefanos Kasselakis as the party's new leader signifies an emerging but familiar trend in Greek politics.
Since 2021, much anticipation has surrounded the election of Nikos Androulakis as the new president of PASOK. However, with Kasselakis assuming leadership of SYRIZA, the odds have increased that this radical left-wing party will continue to be New Democracy's primary rival. It is worth noting that, up to this point, no coalition has been formed between the two leading left-wing parties at any level. However, we should exercise caution, since at the moment, the second-highest political rating after Prime Minister Mitsotakis belongs to Dimitris Koutsoumbas (1955), the President of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Kasselakis holds the third position, with Androulakis ranking fourth in the ratings. But there is no doubt that Kasselakis has already won in one regard - he has stolen the show from his fellow politicians and serves as an inexhaustible wellspring of media inspiration. Whoever follows him, will surely not get bored.
The upcoming local elections will not change the balance of power. The dominance of New Democracy will continue for some time, backed by a powerful and well-organized propaganda machine. Kasselakis has repeatedly accused the media of being biased in favour of New Democracy.
However, there is currently a question as to whether Kasselakis, with his human agenda and hints at numerous changes, will be able to challenge New Democracy's leading position, currently led by Prime Minister Mitsotakis. The fact that Kasselakis is not a member of the Greek Parliament presents a minor impediment. There is a possibility that some parliamentarians may resign, thus providing an avenue for Kasselakis to become a member of Parliament (given his inclusion on a list that permits this). Nevertheless, this course of action has not garnered a positive response, and Kasselakis himself has suggested that it is not his primary objective.
Greeks take pride in their illustrious history, particularly emphasizing their continuity from ancient times. Historians note an intriguing phenomenon within the elite circles of ancient Greece, where many high-ranking men openly embraced a lifestyle that bore a striking resemblance to aspects of today's LGBT community.
In recent decades, Greece has been governed effectively by the conservative New Democracy party, both at the central and local levels. This prompts the question of whether, after 2,000 years, it is possible for an open member of the LGBT community to ascend once more to the highest echelons of the Greek elite and executive power.
About the Author
Dr. Tomi Dimitrovski is a former Macedonian Ambassador to the Republic of Slovenia (2014-2018), and former Consul General in Thessaloniki, Republic of Greece (2007-2014). Tomi Dimitrovski holds a PhD (University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, 2018). He teaches Strategic Management of Healthcare Organizations at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and Healthcare Management at the University of York European Campus in Thessaloniki, Republic of Greece.
The views herein expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of IFIMES.
Ljubljana/Skopje, 4 October 2023
 IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal "European Perspectives."