After being elected president of the 19-year-old, centro-leftist political party Syriza, called the Progressive Alliance, in September, Stefanos Kasselakis became the subject of heated conversation in Greece. While the party historically represents socialist values, Kasselakis comes from an elite, privileged background. In fact, he is the first Syriza president to have grown up wealthy and to have studied at a university in the United States.
Kasselakis’ promotion has also sparked conflicts within the party. Many members of Syriza have characterized his victory as a tragedy for workers’ rights—a key cause for the party. Given his privileged background and lack of knowledge about the challenges faced by the working class, many are skeptical that Kasselakis is qualified to lead a party that represents them.
Members of Syriza have long argued over the party’s direction. Just recently, several high-profile politicians left the party and formed a new faction called Umbrella, led by Euclid Tsakalotos. This departure could weaken Syriza’s influence and tilt the balance of political power in Greece away from the left.
Syriza plays a key role in Greek politics. Out of the 300-person Parliament, 47 seats are occupied by Syriza members. And, in the European Parliament, Syriza holds four of the 21 Greek seats—for Greece, these are big numbers.
Syriza has moved to the right over time, adopting loosely defined centro-leftist politics and socialist values focused on bridging the class divide and uplifting working people’s voices. Meanwhile, its political influence is gradually diminishing, as the results of the last national elections show. In June 2023, the right-wing Nea Dimokratia party won 40 percent of the vote, defeating Syriza by a whopping 22 percent. Kasselakis’ election seems to point to a new era of Syriza—one that is significantly less left-leaning than in the past.
After Aléxis Tsípras stepped down as president of Syriza, five candidates, including Stefanos Kasselakis, entered the race to succeed him. The biggest difference between Kasselakis and the other candidates was their political experience. Unlike the other candidates, Kasselakis had never served as a member of the Parliament. Although he had worked in US politics as part of President Joe Biden’s primary campaign in 2008, his current role is his first role in Greek politics. Meanwhile, candidate Efklidis Tsakalotos served as Minister of Finance and candidate Efi Achtsioglou was Head of the Office of the Ministry of Labor, Social Security, and Social Solidarity.
Nikos Filis, former Syriza Minister of Education, raised concerns that Kasselakis would compromise Syriza’s commitment to leftist values, asking, “If with his appearance Kasselakis creates a socio-political wall against him and strong fissures in credibility among Syriza voters, which are reflected as poll subsidence, how can the Radical Left recover?”
Syriza has a statute of 17 main values. There is no reference about the sociopolitical background that the president is required to have; however, the president of the party is expected to uphold their beliefs, including the statement that Syriza’s origins are found in the working and general popular movement at the end of the 19th century.
What is the connection between Kasselakis and the working class?
There is none. That’s why the rise of Kasselakis marks the lack of clarity of leftist values in Greece. His entire career has been unrelated to leftism or Greek politics. He hasn’t even lived in Greece for the past 15 years. The fact that he was elected with around 70,000 votes is a tragedy for the left. Syriza can advocate for free education and free healthcare and social liberation until it’s time to elect a new president—and then, they vote for the Penn graduate.
Kasselakis comes from a very wealthy background. He grew up in one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Athens and received the most prestigious schooling possible (Athens College and Phillips Academy Andover). Then, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, having received a scholarship from Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation—a very powerful philanthropic private organization. While at Penn, he founded an NGO to support Greek students during the Greek debt crisis. He is a former Goldman Sachs trader and is now a shipowner. Kasselakis was living in Miami until earlier this year, when he relocated to Greece.
This begs the question: If Kasselakis is evidently not the most ideal candidate for a historically socialist party, why did so many knowledgeable politicians vote in favor of his presidency?
One reason Kasselakis became so popular was his commitment to LGBTQ+ rights as an openly gay man. He has stated his intentions to fight for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Greece. For this, he has had to confront many instances of homophobia in TV panels, interviews, or political debates. Some also argue that Syriza is in the process of redefining itself as a way of rebounding from its tremendous 2019 loss and the following rise of the right wing. Therefore, it is using Kasselakis to shift the party’s political orientation.
Kasselakis has won over the masses. Article after article features pictures of him hugging dogs, taking shots, and handing pizza slices to journalists camped outside of his office. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before; many politicians nowadays rely on campaign strategies that bring them closer to younger generations, not to mention make for good photo ops. However, such clearly curated content causes leftists—and idealists—to lose trust in the newly elected president’s authenticity. Why be part of the well-known game of the media? Why agree to appear in nonsensical, shallow morning-day talk shows? Why post off-putting “relatable” TikToks?
Press President of Syriza Dora Avgeris highlights that Kasselakis’ election has shifted the people’s focus on the party after a long time: After all, all publicity is good publicity. But the debate here is not whether Kasselakis is an effective politician, but whether he should be the president of the most prominent leftist political party in Greece. Clearly, he is viewed as a threat to the party’s stability and leftist tradition.
The reason Kasselakis’ election might affect the trajectory of Greek politics can be seen in the context of a phenomenon observed in countries such as Sweden, Germany, Italy, and France. In recent elections across Europe, far-right parties are coming in second or even first place, which raises the question: Will a weaker left in Greece create space for the far right?
The Greek left has undeniably been in crisis this year. The current controversial presidency of Syriza reflects nothing less than the diminishment of socialist values within the party. For those on the right, Kasselakis’ election is a win—for those who stand with the left, a tragedy.
Still, we shouldn’t forget that there are bigger fights happening right now, namely a genocide.