Political outsider Stefanos Kasselakis wins race to lead Greece’s Syriza

<span>Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Stefanos Kasselakis, an outsider with no previous experience of politics in Greece, has emerged the victor of an electric race to lead the leftwing Syriza, the country’s main opposition party.

The Greek-American entrepreneur, who announced his candidacy for the post barely four weeks ago, attained 56.69% of the vote against 43.31% for Efi Achtsioglou, a former labour minister who had long been viewed as the favourite. Kasselakis’ win now makes him one of the most powerful people in Greece.

Amid jubilant scenes outside Syriza’s headquarters in Athens, the 35-year-old told supporters: “Today light won and hope collectively, hope for the future … I am not a phenomenon. I am the voice of a society and I’m not going to let you down. Tomorrow the hard work begins.”

A shipping executive in the US, Kasselakis stepped into the race when Aléxis Tsípras, the party’s president for the past 15 years, announced he would be stepping down after Syriza’s double defeat in general elections held in May and June. The prime minister from 2015 to 2019, Tsipras had kept a “neutral” stance, refusing to endorse either candidate after Kasselakis’ unexpected win in the first round last week.

As the results rolled in late Sunday, the businessman’s victory was described as both stunning and unprecedented.

Some 133,600 voters cast ballots at an estimated 537 polling stations nationwide with Syriza cadres describing the turnout as not only impressive but indicative of the desire to see a newly reinvigorated and strong opposition party facing a government intent on demolishing hard-won rights.

Kasselakis, who is not known to have had any links with Syriza before this year, moved to Athens only months ago, settling in the capital with his American husband Tyler McBeth. He called over to McBeth, a nurse by training, to join him as he addressed the crowd, referring to his partner as “my personal family”. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for welcoming him and embracing him,” he said smiling as supporters shouted “Stefanos change everything”.

The Greek-American has signalled that he will apply root-and-branch change to Syriza, a progressive alliance that includes Marxists, Euro-communists, ecologists and social democrats. He has stated that if the party ever wants to taste power again it should “just copy the US formula as soon as possible” by transforming into a “big tent” US-style Democratic party.

In an opinion piece published in July the entrepreneur, who moved to Massachusetts as a teenager, called his decision to engage in Greek politics “a brief interlude between two chapters in my business career”.

Among the array of policy priorities proposed by the businessman were “drastic” tax relief for private and public sector employees, the separation of church and state, judicial reforms, citizenship for migrant children born and brought up in Greece and legalising same-sex marriage. But his failure to produce a detailed programme has been criticised as indicative of an approach both opaque and overarching.

“This is the end of leftwing Syriza as we know it,” Stelios Kouloglou, a Syriza MEP told the Guardian. “That party died tonight. Kasselakis will make huge changes and in the future case studies will be conducted because what he has pulled off is so stunning. He appeared almost from nowhere and now is in charge. It’s crazy, a scenario that no one would have believed a few months ago.”

Traditional leftists in the party, he said, were in “complete shock”.

Confirming that changes were inevitable, Evangelos Antonaros a former MP with the ruling centre-right New Democracy party, who ran with Syriza at Tsípras’ request in May, said: “We support Kasselakis because he wants to move the party towards the centre, the ground that Syriza lost in the last election. It will be re-established with open minds and open doors.”

The new Syriza leader has repeatedly said that he is better placed to defeat prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, citing what he has described as his “better English and finance and business” knowledge.