May 19, 2023 - 5:30pm

As the Government demonstrates every day, actually being conservative can be difficult for a conservative party. A hostile press can present any deviation from Left-liberal norms as a dark slide towards fascism, while civil servants can stymie reforms, leaving governing parties to ineffectually announce policies they cannot deliver. Not so in Greece, however, where the ruling conservative New Democracy party, which goes to the polls this weekend in a challenging election, has instituted markedly Right-wing governance while maintaining an international reputation as boringly competent centre-Right technocrats.

Take immigration, where the previous Left-wing SYRIZA government’s open-borders approach to the 2015 migration crisis was wrongfooted by Germany’s sudden border closure, transforming Greece’s eastern islands into the EU’s holding camp. As immigration — linked with national security through Turkey’s weaponisation of migrants — became a hot-button issue among Greek voters, New Democracy’s leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis won plaudits through his hard-nosed approach.

Migrants are now routinely pushed back at sea, the unpopular Northern European NGOs blamed for accelerating the flow are squeezed, and a new secure border wall has stemmed the flow across Greece’s heavily-militarised land border with Turkey. Shrugging off criticism, Mitsotakis told AP recently that:

I want to make it very clear I’m unapologetic about that. We have reversed the policy of the previous government, which had an open door policy that ended up allowing more than a million people to cross into Greece in 2015. That’s not going to happen again.
- Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Law and order is another controversial issue in Greece, where the police force has long been a hotbed of radical Right-wing sentiment. Immediately on coming to power, Mitsotakis revived the Greek police’s crack motorcycle unit — often used to break up violent demonstrations by radical Left-wing groups — which had been disbanded by SYRIZA, and boosted its ranks by recruiting military special forces. Perhaps the police has been given too free a rein: the opposition alleges an internal culture of lawlessness and brutality — including rape, excessive violence, and links with organised crime. Yet Greece’s Minister of Civil Protection Takis Theodorikakos recently called these accusations “slanderous” and “nationally damaging”, insisting that “our daily concern in practice is the safety of citizens, which is why we put an end to the lawlessness and delinquency.” 

But a recent wiretapping scandal, in which the Greek EYP intelligence service — which Mitsotakis placed under his direct control as part of the new “executive state” — was discovered to have been bugging the leader of the centre-Left PASOK party, has taken some of the lustre off the Prime Minister’s international reputation, though New Democracy insists the surveillance was justified by national security. For European Green parties, which have long taken issue with New Democracy’s border policies, the disclosure is a rule of law outrage, aligning with criticism that New Democracy’s state-funded patronage of conservative media has downgraded the country’s press freedom, now listed by Reporters Without Borders as the worst in the EU.

But for the mainstream European centre-Right, it’s not an issue at all. Applauded by the international press for economic reforms which have steered Greece out of the worst of its generation-defining crisis, New Democracy is firmly supported by the centre-Right EPP grouping in the European Parliament, and is the frontrunner in this weekend’s election — even if it looks unlikely to be able to form a government outright in the first round. Potential excesses aside, perhaps there’s a lesson here for Rishi Sunak. Evidently voters are indulgent towards governments that deliver basic economic competence, robust law and order, and effective border management: by talking less, you can get away with more.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.