Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis participated in the discussion panel “Stemming the Illiberal Tide: The Global Challenge of Eroding Democracy” at the Munich Security Conference.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and Christine Lambrecht, German Minister of Defense, also participated in the discussion, while the President of Microsoft Brad Smith made a short intervention.
Coordinator: But much more interesting for understanding the strength of democracy is to see the fate of the post-populists governments. In a certain way from this point of view, Greek is a very interesting story. You remember ten years ago, basically, people were talking about Greece as a country that cannot recover its democracy after the financial crisis, that people have lost their trust in democracy. So talking about Democratic resilience, I do believe that the Greek Prime Minister is the person to tell us a story that probably everybody wants to hear.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you. Thank you for that introduction. Indeed, if I take you back eleven years to 2010, Greece faced a massive financial crisis, which led to multiple bailout programs, the impoverishment of a significant segment of the Greek society, an austerity imposed from abroad, and significant resentment by the Greek population directed both against domestic elites, domestic political class, but also against those that were considered rightly or wrongly responsible for the austerity measures that we had to endure.
The result was that in 2015, we elected probably the first populist government in Europe. We were ahead of the trend at the time. It was a hard-left government that actually formed a coalition with a party that was to the right of the party I represent. Interesting(ly) enough that sometimes when it comes to populism, ideology is not such an important factor. And at the time they were elected because they clearly promised a set of solutions that everybody knew was impossible to implement. But people were willing to give them a chance because they completely mistrusted the old political establishment. And what happened since, was we had four years of – and I think I’m being kind – very mediocre government.
And then in 2019, Greeks decided to elect the party I have the privilege of leading into power with an absolute majority. And I think the reason we reached that point was exactly because at the end of the day, our democracy and our institutions were resilient. We are a well-functioning democracy.
I think there were attempts at the time by the previous government to control independent media, to influence justice, but our institutions held. Our constitutional court held. When the previous government tried to pass a legislation that was deemed unconstitutional in terms of control of the media, they rejected it. So we had an institutional foundation that was strong enough to prevent a populist government from capturing power and winning again.
Because my theory is that these governments become very dangerous, and they can become dangerous for democracy if they win a second election and we managed to avert that.
But at the end of the day, it all comes down to delivering results. I think since we won, we listen to the grievances of people. The worst thing you can do as a politician fighting the populists is to believe that the reasons why the populists are elected in the first place are all wrong.
That’s not the case. There was injustice, there was inequality, there was corruption in Greece. And one needs to understand that these grievances are reasonable and we also need to make our own self-criticism that elites don’t always get it right and we also need to change course.
And at the end of the day, it’s all about delivering results. We’re still quite popular as a government, because we did essentially what we promised to do, which is strange, because the experience in Greece was always that you get elected and then you do the exact opposite.
So when you do what you promised to do, people are – I think – pleasantly surprised. So it is about, at the end of the day, institutional resilience.
It is about Democratic maturity. But not many people would have placed a bet, maybe even five years ago that Greece would have turned the page. It has turned the page now. It has turned the page for good.
And I think we are a more resilient democracy now because exactly we went through this very turbulent, very difficult, very painful period. We managed not only to survive, but I think we’re stronger now. We’re stronger economically, but we’re also stronger institutionally and democratically.
Following a question addressed to the President of Microsoft Brad Smith, who was asked to comment on the relations between democracy, technology and democratic resilience, the Prime Minister mentioned:
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think Brad made extremely valid points about the very quick spread of disinformation and how difficult it is to identify the source of them. I just want to add another dimension to the connection between technology and democracy.
Because I am afraid that when we talk about this topic we almost immediately think of disinformation about social media platforms. There’s another dimension and another more positive story. And taking a cue from what the speaker said about fighting corruption and increasing transparency, technology can be invaluable in terms of simplifying the interaction between the state, citizens and businesses.
In Greece, the most successful reform – it has 80% approval across parties – has been the digitization of the state and the ability to interact seamlessly without human interaction, which frequently can be a source of petty corruption. And this has increased the trust in the state because we respect people’s time, we don’t have them come in for unnecessary bureaucratic procedures.
And it is a completely different way of rewiring the way the public administration works. So let us not forget, in this debate about technology and democracy, there’s also another side, a very positive story. I can tell you that these solutions can be implemented very quickly, relatively cheaply, and the benefit in terms of time saved for citizens, but also the benefits in terms of transparency are just huge.