Athens, Greece – Stefanos Kasselakis, a 35-year-old former Goldman Sachs trader, was elected leader of Syriza on Sunday, sending shockwaves throughout the Greek left with his meteoric rise.
Within a month, he emerged from political obscurity to head Greece’s main opposition group.
Kasselakis threw his hat into the ring at the end of August, posting a four-minute video to this social media channels promising to “build the Greek dream”.
He is seen by some as a breath of fresh air for a party which has struggled to meaningfully challenge Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his ruling right-wing New Democracy party in recent elections.
“Let the right fall!”, “Go ahead and change everything!” Kasselakis’s supporters cheered at the party headquarters in central Athens on Sunday night, giving him a hero’s welcome.
Nikos Pappas, an MP and Syriza heavyweight, said Kasselakis would be rejuvenating, and that he has a “clear mandate” to transform Syriza into a “left-wing, progressive, democratic faction”.
With limited political experience, including a stint volunteering for then-Senator Joe Biden in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Kasselakis used his business career to position himself as the candidate to defeat Prime Minister Mitsotakis.
He replaces ex-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who resigned as head of Syriza in June after the party’s poor electoral performance. Tsipras led Syriza to victory in the 2015 elections and governed through the turbulent financial crisis until he was ousted by Mitsotakis in the 2019 general election, but remained party leader until this summer.
The narrative arc of Kasselakis’s lightening ascension is being spoken of as cinematic in nature.
“Not even the most perverse screenwriter could come up with such a political black comedy,” an article in the Kathimerini national newspaper read on Monday.
Educated at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, Kasselakis worked for Goldman Sachs before founding his own shipping company. He has been outspoken about LGBTQ rights in Greece and is in a civil partnership with his American partner Tyler McBeth, making him Syriza’s first openly gay leader.
Kasselakis relied on social media channels to boost his profile, on which his dog Farlie, a Portuguese water dog, became a familiar face. Until recently, he was a US resident and counts English, German, French and Spanish among the languages he speaks fluently.
He promised to focus on increasing public spending on education, replacing mandatory military service with a professional army, separating church and state, and championing queer rights.
Kasselakis’s opponent in Sunday’s leadership election was Efi Achtsioglou, 38, a lawyer and former labour minister who had been considered a shoo-in for the role.
There were tensions between the two camps as Achtsioglou defined herself as the more experienced candidate against a political ingenue. She promised to hike wages and fight the climate crisis, but her popularity waned in recent weeks as Kasselakis’s savvy social media drive took hold.
She received 44 percent of the vote to Kasselakis’s 56 percent; 97 percent of the votes had been counted by Monday morning.
Achtisoglou conceded in a speech late on Sunday, saying the turnout of more than 130,000 members to vote showed that Syriza was still a relevant political force.
“From tomorrow, a great struggle begins to exercise militant and structural opposition against the government of the New Democracy and to give perspective and hope to the people of this place who can and deserve to live better,” she said.
Kasselakis told his supporters outside the Syriza headquarters that “the light won”.
“I am not a phenomenon. I am the voice of society. I’m never going to betray you,” he vowed.
He cast his election as showing “Syriza is here and will stay here, and will win from now on”.
He mentioned the victims of recent floods in the Thessaly region, where many people lost their homes and livelihoods.
“I wish the state will stand by their side and take every preventative measure from now on,” he said.
But critics expressed concerns about his lack of formal political experience and suggested his approach is more centrist than has previously been seen in a party traditionally associated with the radical left.
Georgios Samaras, assistant professor of public policy at Kings College London, told Al Jazeera that the newcomer’s victory was not necessarily the silver bullet the party was looking for.
“Kasselakis’s victory highlights a concerning trend of political immaturity within Syriza,” he said.
“This election has witnessed the elevation of a relatively unknown politician who lacks a clear political agenda or well-defined objectives.”
Samaras said Kasselakis’s position might be weakened, given that he is not a sitting member of parliament, unlike Achtsioglou.
“It’s a risky move, and Kasselakis’s emergence introduces a significant degree of uncertainty into the dynamics of the opposition, especially considering his lack of a parliamentary seat. The recent conflicts between Kasselakis and the other candidate, Effie Achtsioglou, have further exacerbated tensions,” he said, predicting that a “schism” might now blight the Greek left.