The New Democracy government, under the leadership of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is facing the most serious political crisis since it came to power after the defeat of the SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) government in the elections of 2019.
Revelations about the National Intelligence Service (EYP) tapping the phones of the government’s political opponents, as well as of independent journalists, purportedly for “national security” reasons, is a big political scandal which will no doubt have serious political consequences.
At the root of this scandal is a culture of secrecy at the core of the bourgeois state, particularly in the field of “counter-terrorism” and espionage, which is the traditional domain of the notorious EYP, an opaque state service which has long enjoyed generous funding and total “protection” by governments of all political stripes—including that of SYRIZA.
The secrecy has two dimensions. On the one hand, there is the cooperation between the state and the private sector, with “security” enterprises that provide illegal and uncontrollable spyware. On the other hand, this elaborate surveillance (which provides obvious opportunities for blackmail) was placed under the direct control of Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his entourage, without even the pretext that this activity is undertaken for any broader social benefit.
After coming to power, Mitsotakis, who is the prominent leader of the ultra-neoliberal faction of New Democracy, placed the control of EYP directly under the prime minister’s office. He appointed Panagiotis Kontoleon as head of the EYP, a man of the market who has a background in security companies. In doing so, he broke with a long tradition of the head of the EYP being a distinguished “statesman”, usually a career diplomat or equivalent. In addition, Mitsotakis assigned the “coordination” of the prime minister’s office (which now included the political direction of EYP) to his nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis. Dimitriadis is a young free marketeer, who had already discredited himself in past scandals and scams (especially in the energy sector).
The scale of the surveillance is significant. In 2021, the number of officially approved phone-tappings reached 15,475, always supposedly for “national security” reasons. We should keep in mind that the actual figure is much higher, since EYP maintains the privilege to decide whether they want to track all the interlocutors of each “suspect” whose surveillance was “authorised”. All those people found themselves (for reasons of “national security”) in a situation without democratic rights or constitutional guarantees. In the process of surveillance, a specific “hub” in EYP used the Predator spyware, which is provided for hire by Intellexa, an Israeli surveillance firm. It is no coincidence that Intellexa is rumoured to have financial links with the prime minister’s nephew and coordinator of the government, the young lawyer, Grigoris Dimitriadis!
The first crack in this sinister structure emerged when it was found that EYP had installed the Predator spyware in the mobile phone of a journalist, Thanasis Koukakis, who was investigating financial scandals of the previous period (including a law by the Mitsotakis government that “released” certain big bank accounts which were previously “blocked” as suspects for money laundering). The crack became a rift when it was revealed that EYP had wire-tapped the mobile phone of parliamentarian Nikos Androulakis, while he was running for the leadership of PASOK (the Greek equivalent of the Labour Party).
Androulakis comfortably won the party election and is the current leader of PASOK mostly because (unlike his rival Andreas Loverdos) he refused to commit to forming a coalition with Mitsotakis in case New Democracy needed parliamentary support to rule after the next election. The motive for a potential political blackmail of Androulakis is more than obvious.
In the political storm that followed the revelations, even the extremely pro-government publications could no longer provide cover for Mitsotakis. “Kathimerini” (a paper owned by ship-owner Alafouzos) revealed that there are at least seven or eight more political opponents of Mitsotakis who are under surveillance. Christos Spirtzis (former minister and a right-hand man of SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras) has already said that Predator spyware was installed in his mobile phone. “To Vima” (a paper owned by ship-owner V. Marinakis) revealed that Intellexa is providing the Predator spyware for rent to more than 30 customers in Greece, beyond EYP and other state authorities. So it seems that business groups, banks, funds and others are engaged in the sport of illegal surveillance (the cost to rent Predator or other spyware is said to be €8 million per “target”).
Under the weight of these revelations, Mitsotakis was forced to ask for the resignations of Kontoleon and Dimitriadis, blaming them for “operational misfires”. But in the parliamentary debate, he tried to defend surveillance and the activities of EYP and to block any further investigations by invoking the “classified” character of counter-terrorism and espionage operations. His sister, Dora Bakoyannis, has publicly warned those involved to keep their mouths shut, declaring that whoever breaches the security of “classified” information faces 10 years in prison.
To justify this outrage, Mitsotakis is painting a picture of Greece as in a state of war: he constantly refers to the threat of immigrant or refugee “invasions”, and to some sort of “hybrid” threats coming from Turkey. Yet again, it is demonstrated that racism and nationalism have repercussions not only for migrants, but for the democratic rights of the majority as well. For everyone sees that if Mitsotakis won’t hesitate to cross a line against the head of a mainstream party of government like PASOK, then what hope is there for militant unionists, social movement activists or members of the political Left?
The failure of the government to present a convincing case for its actions in the face of the surveillance scandal has highlighted the difficulties that Mitsotakis is facing even in his own party, as well as his effort to remain the head of the wider “anti-Left” block which was formed during the struggles of 2010-15 (roughly defined as the political block that represented the “YES” vote in the referendum of 2015 about whether or not to accept the European Commission’s conditions for a bailout of the Greek economy). Former prime minister and ex-leader of New Democracy, Kostas Karamanlis, is a member of the powerful family that traditionally leads a fraction of the party known as “popular Right”. Ever since Mitsotakis was elected as party leader, Karamanlis opted for the tactic of remaining completely silent. He recently reversed this tactic for the first time, asking for the full investigation of the scandal and warning that it is not politically acceptable to invoke the “classified” nature of security service operations as a means to bypass parliamentary control and constitutional procedures.
This was also the political argument of former social democrats who represent the “extreme centre” in Greece, like Evaggelos Venizelos, Anna Diamantopoulou and N. Alivizatos. Since 2013, this political milieu had been a valuable ally for the right-wing party and a useful “reserve” for Mitsotakis in anticipation of the tough electoral contest in spring of 2023.
Important as it is in its own right, the surveillance scandal is not enough to explain these shifts. While they might seem minor now, they threaten the cohesion of the political current that enabled the electoral victory of the right wing in 2019. The scandal is also not enough to explain the changing treatment of Mitsotakis at an international level: major international publications and media support the revelations and the further investigation, while New Democracy politicians are under serious pressure in the institutions of the European Union.
Underpinning these developments is the failure of the economic and social policy of Mitsotakis, which is leading to a potential new and deep social and political crisis in Greece. Speaking at the International Fair in Thessaloniki, Mitsotakis chose to remind the ruling class how dedicated he was to serving their interests: he reduced the taxation on profits to a minimum, he drastically cut the employers’ social security contributions, he eliminated any control or taxation to the inheritance transfer of large fortunes, and most importantly, he insisted on the liberalisation of industrial relations and the reactionary reform of labour laws to make strike action and union organising harder. This policy produced certain results—despite the troubles in the international economy, Greek companies listed on the stock exchange can claim significant profits, the exports of Greek capitalism are breaking record after record, the income from tourism remain on very high levels, and the war in Ukraine has provided Greek ship-owners with new great opportunities (both legal and not-so-legal) to transport both American liquid natural gas and Russian oil.
But for workers and the poor, the situation is one of despair. According to estimates from unions, during 2022 the average wage of a full-time worker lost 19.2 percent of its purchasing power. Moving lower down the income ladder, where people have to spend all their income just to cover their immediate needs, the impact of inflation is even harsher. The average wage of a part-time worker declined 30 percent in real terms in 2022. In Greece, 30 percent of working-class households spend 45 percent of their monthly income on rent and utilities bills.
This extreme escalation of social inequality is creating concern even in conservative circles of the establishment. The idea that broader ruling coalitions will be needed to secure a social consensus is becoming more common in the mainstream press.
This is combined with a certain level of European discomfort about the situation. European “solidarity” funds are provided to Greece in order to protect the integrity of the system as a whole. The European Commission and its institutions are not happy to sit and watch in silence as the clique around Mitsotakis organises a “party” of one-sided distributions that benefit solely the prime minister’s cronies.
For the time being, the leadership of New Democracy maintains the control of the political situation, choosing to organise an election towards the end of the four-year term of Mitsotakis, in the spring of 2023. But no one can be sure that Mitsotakis will be in a better position by then, or even that his government will last that long. Especially since a tough winter is coming.
Opinion polls published after the surveillance scandal point towards the possibility of deadlock in the 2023 election. If correct, they indicate that the prospect of a parliamentary majority for New Democracy is no longer feasible. The prospect of a governmental coalition between New Democracy and PASOK does exist in terms of numbers, but it is no longer politically viable, after the breakdown in the relations of Mitsotakis with the current leadership of PASOK and also with other social-democratic politicians, who had until recently been more willing. The polls also show that the possibility of a coalition between SYRIZA and PASOK could work in terms of electoral numbers, but it too faces some important political problems. The statement of PASOK leader Nikos Androulakis that his aim is the formation of a government under “Neither Mitsotakis, Nor Tsipras” is an indication.
The remaining possibilities—either of a Grand Coalition (ND-SYRIZA), a technocratic government or an overhaul of the major political parties and the emergence of “new and unscathed leaderships”—are nebulous, without concrete steps having been taken in that direction.
This picture of the political situation, without a clear answer to the central question of governmental power in the next six to nine months, is a sign of the political instability affecting the country. Instability that could well increase as the surveillance scandal unfolds. Ultimately, the fate of Mitsotakis, and his ability to retain control of the political game, depends on the weakness of the opposition, and especially of SYRIZA.
The position of Tsipras is undermined by the record of his government in 2015-19. Details of the EYP’s activities that have become public because of the scandal indicate that the first pronounced increase in the number of phone-tappings took place in 2016, a time when Tsipras had to deal with imposing the Third Memorandum and the recent split in SYRIZA. In addition, the negotiations between the Greek state and Intellexa—which brought Predator spyware to the country—started in 2016, thus paving the way for the current outrages by Dimitriadis and his friends. But the position of Tsipras is even more compromised by the political strategy he chose for SYRIZA, a strategy which is totally “institutional”, adjusted to the needs to ally with the social-democratic party and the prospect of a “progressive” government, that is, a strategy which revolves solely around elections.
While Mitsotakis was speaking in Thessaloniki, Tsipras was a speaker at the annual festival of SYRIZA’s youth, addressing the most radical audience left in this party. The only thing he chose to say to the young people in the party ranks was a call to vote, whenever elections happen.
This policy provides Mitsotakis with a chance to survive. Worse, it provides the establishment the opportunity to move the political axis in a conservative direction, as they search for an electoral/governmental alternative solution after the election.
Facing a rough winter, the crucial question is whether the working-class movement and the youth will find the strength to assert their own independent will from below. This will both determine whether or not they can win their demands in the face of the crisis, as well as potentially impact the wider political situation.
Translated by Panos Petrou. First published at International Socialism Project.