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ATHENS — A persistent espionage scandal has upended Greece’s political landscape, fueling doubts the country can form a stable government after the next election.
The controversy started last month when the government acknowledged it had wiretapped an opposition leader’s phone — a move it called legal but wrong. It then quickly blossomed into a labyrinthine story that involved controversial spyware being planted on the phones of an ever-expanding network of politicians and journalists.
But the government has claimed no connection to — or even knowledge of — these broader cases. And after firing two top government officials, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is now holding firm, insisting he must stay the course amid gathering economic storm clouds, a war raging nearby and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from rival Turkey.
“I’m not going to be the overseer of political instability,” Mitsotakis said Saturday night at an annual trade fair in the northern city of Thessaloniki — Greece’s biggest annual political event. “I will lead the country safely to the end of the four-year term and then we will be measured.”
The public is split on whether they want to see Mitsotakis stick around until then, though. Two recent polls showed just over half of Greeks feel the prime minister should resign. And with elections set to be held sometime in the next nine months, Mitsotakis’ potential coalition partners are trying to pounce on the crisis.
Hanging over everything is the possibility that more espionage plots will emerge. Already, there has been a consistent drip of fresh allegations in the Greek press in recent weeks.
Still, Mitsotakis has reason to be confident that he and his center-right New Democracy party may emerge relatively unscathed. Even though some party members are grumbling about the revelations, New Democracy itself has not suffered in the polls. And voters appear far more focused on the tempestuous economy than they are on espionage.
“Mitsotakis pledged not to go to elections in autumn, after a good tourist season, but in spring, after a very difficult winter,” said Athanasios Diamantopoulos, a Greek political specialist at Panteion University. “By then, reports of the wiretapping will not have died down, but there will be so many economic troubles that this will be the main stake.”
Cracks from within
The lingering scandal has not been without consequences — far from it.
To start, there were the resignations, which included one of Mitsotakis’ top aides and his intelligence chief. Those came after the government conceded it had authorized a wiretap of Nikos Androulakis, a European Parliament member who leads the third-largest party in Greece’s parliament, the center-left Pasok.
Making matters worse, intrusive spyware known as Predator was also found on Androulakis’ phone, in addition to those of a journalist and a lawmaker from the main opposition party, the left-wing Syriza. The government has denied any links to those buggings.
Still, there are lingering questions about what, exactly, occurred. Mitsotakis has refused to explain why his political opponent was spied on, pointing to national security concerns.
The silence has left some New Democracy members uneasy.
“In such situations, catharsis occurs only when they are fully clarified,” Kostas Karamanlis, a former Greek prime minister and one-time head of New Democracy, said during a recent party event in Crete. “For these events to have been caused by government initiative is not only undemocratic and illegal but so far beyond the bounds of morbid imagination and political nonsense that it is unthinkable.”
The frustrations have spilled into parliament, where Nikitas Kaklamanis, a New Democracy member and deputy house speaker, said he now opposes a provision he and the ruling party passed depriving citizens of the ability to find out if they are under surveillance. Pasok also initially backed the legislation.
New Democracy parliament member Konstantinos Tzavaras even branded the Greek media a “disgrace” for not covering the scandal more.
“The functioning of the constitution has taken a severe blow and the prime minister must rise to the occasion,” said Tzavaras, one of the party’s representatives in a parliamentary inquiry investigating the issue.
Despite the public reprimands, a full revolt from within the party remains unlikely — the number of disaffected New Democracy figures has not increased in recent days.
To some political specialists in the country, Mitsotakis’ staying power is a symptom of a malfunctioning Greek political system.
“If we were in any democratic state we would not have political instability,” said Nikos Marantzidis, a political science professor at the University of Macedonia. “The PM would have already resigned and succession developments would have been initiated.”
Mitsotakis, Marantzidis argued, “identifies his personal future with the future of democracy and the country when he says that if I resign there will be instability.”
Mitsotakis struck back at that thinking on Sunday, saying: “People know us. If not us, then who?”
An eye on elections
Ultimately, Mitsotakis is likely to spend the coming months both trying to keep his party together — and trying to navigate an ever-more complicated election, which must be held by next July and is expected to take place in the spring.
Until the spying revelations surfaced, New Democracy and Pasok were seen as heading toward forming a centrist coalition government after the upcoming elections.
That’s all over.
“It is now very difficult for Pasok voters to move towards New Democracy, but even more difficult for them to put pressure on their party leadership to participate in a coalition,” said Diamantopoulos, the Greek political specialist at Panteion University.
Mitsotakis put the blame for that on Androulakis himself, accusing him of playing politics with his surveillance.
“I believe that what happened helped Androulakis to walk a line that was predetermined, that of rupture with New Democracy,” he said, alleging that the Pasok leader is in “disharmony” with his own voters.
Greece’s next national election will be held under a proportional representation system, making it almost impossible for any party to gather a majority. Because of that, the country will most likely head to a second election, which would be held under a system granting bonus seats to the first party. Current polling, however, shows no party close to reaching an absolute majority, even with a second-round bonus.
Before the spying scandal, that reality had fueled expectations that New Democracy and Pasok would be pressed into a coalition. Now, with the two parties squabbling, speculation is running rampant about what coalition formations could emerge from such a divisive moment.
Mitsotakis could link up with the nationalist, Russophile Greek Solution party. Yet that would represent a U-turn for the prime minister, who styles himself as a moderate and pro-U.S. politician.
On Sunday, Mitsotakis said that he doesn’t feel “at all close” to Greek Solution but didn’t exclude a potential tie-up, arguing he is “not ready to talk about what the options will be” if a coalition is needed. He also left open the option of teaming up with specific lawmakers from various political parties to bolster his standing.
Remarkably, a team-up between New Democracy and Pasok is still on the table, according to political analysts in Athens — but realistically only without Mitsotakis as the prime minister. That’s not something Mitsotakis will likely go for.
“The leader of the first party must be the prime minister, even in the case of a coalition government,” the prime minister underlined on Sunday.
Similarly, a grand coalition between New Democracy, Pasok and Syriza — an approach Pasok favors — would likely require new leadership within New Democracy.
“This is possible, but won’t be simple,” said Marantzidis, the political science professor. “As long as [Mitsotakis] identifies his personal future with the future of democracy and the country, this will have a negative impact on developments after the elections.”
Mitsotakis himself warned against another possibility — a coalition that pulls together all the center-left and left-wing opposition parties to form a government omitting New Democracy, even if it finishes first.
“This will be a political monstrosity and I have to inform and warn people about this possibility,” Mitsotakis said.
Polls hold steady
Despite the rapidly shifting political dynamics, polling last week showed limited damage to the government over the spy scandal.
Depending on the poll, New Democracy has only slid between 0.2 and 1.7 percentage points since the scandal erupted. Meanwhile, opposition parties Syriza and Pasok merely gained between 0.5 and 1 percentage point.
“We have been surprised by the short-term reactions in the past,” said Giorgos Arapoglou, the general manager of Pulse polling company. Arapoglou recalled that after a massive 2018 fire that saw 100 people perish, the government first gained in the polls before losing power in 2019.
Ultimately, Arapoglou said the economy is usually the biggest factor in elections. Recent polls back up his theory. In a Marc survey, 84 percent of Greeks said they were concerned about inflation and the looming energy crisis this winter. Only 16 percent expressed worries about the wiretapping discoveries.
When just considering politics, though, the espionage story does seem to loom large. A recent GPO poll showed nearly 70 percent of Greeks thought the case was a “very” or “quite” important part of the current political scene. Well over half, 59 percent, also thought Mitsotakis bore some responsibility, while about the same amount said the case had diminished their trust in government.
Some political analysts believe it’s just a matter of time until the issue catches up with the prime minister.
“Obviously the government strategy is to forget what is happening,” said Marantzidis. “But,” he added, “one way or the other, just as Nixon didn’t avoid the truth, Mitsotakis will not be able to avoid it either.”