(CN) — He's 35, openly gay, a former Goldman Sachs banker, a political neophyte with no clear ideology, a resident of Miami and now he's the surprise leader of Greece's main opposition party, the left-wing Syriza.
This is the out-of-nowhere success story of Stefanos Kasselakis, a Greek-American businessman and math prodigy who studied at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School before taking a job with Goldman Sachs and making a fortune as a shipping company owner.
On Sunday, Kasselakis won a contest to take the reins of Syriza, Greece's main opposition party and one of the only left-wing political parties in the European Union to wield power in recent years.
His win was met with a mixture of admiration, perplexity and dread, as he stormed to victory only a month after he announced his out-of-the-blue candidacy for the Syriza leadership.
Using social media, he caught the imagination of Syriza's members and easily defeated Effie Achtsioglou, a 38-year-old lawmaker and former labor minister, in a runoff on Sunday. About 136,000 Greeks turned out to vote.
Before Kasselakis entered the race, Achtsioglou had been the clear favorite to take over the party from former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who resigned after Syriza suffered a crushing defeat in May elections.
Kasselakis was seen as an example of an era of “post-politics” because he raced to the top without taking part in debates or conducting interviews, and won support through a steady stream of social media posts showing his American partner, his gym workouts, his dog and what coffee he likes to drink.
MacroPolis, a Greek political analysis firm, said in a briefing note that Kasselakis takes Syriza into “uncharted territory.”
“He remains an unknown quantity after revealing little about his political beliefs and not exploring policy ideas in any detail on the campaign trail,” MacroPolis said. “He avoided revealing much about his positions, although much of what he said had a centrist, rather than leftist, hue.”
It appears Syriza voters were won over by Kasselakis' main argument that he can take on Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, another brilliant U.S.-educated former investment banker whose leadership has been called into question by a domestic spying scandal.
Mitsotakis, the scion of a Greek political family, is in his second term as prime minister. He first defeated Syriza in 2019 and promised to turn Greece's troubled economy around. Mitsotakis studied at Harvard and Stanford, speaks four languages and worked at Chase Bank and McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm, before setting up a private equity and venture capital fund.
Kasselakis "based this claim on being smarter, more successful and even speaking better English than the prime minister,” MacroPolis said. “It is this promise of being able to beat Mitsotakis, and consequently lead Syriza back to power, that appears to have attracted much of his support.”
MacroPolis noted that it appeared Tsipras had a big hand in getting Kasselakis elected.
Still, many on Greece's left were shocked by the takeover of Syriza by a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and there is risk that Greece's left-wing opposition may fracture even more.
For example, Euclid Tsakalotos, a former finance minister when Syriza was in government, issued a statement emphasizing the need for Syriza to remain loyal to its leftist roots, MacroPolis said. Tsakalotos did not congratulate Kasselakis for his win.
“Syriza voters are frustrated to the point of despair,” said Giorgos Karelias, an opinion writer for News24/7, a Greek news outlet. “Desperate voters don't listen to anything. They don't care if the person they elect has nothing to do with the left.”
Karelias was puzzled how Syriza voters could put their trust in a political neophyte who offered little details about his beliefs and positions. He chided Kasselakis for being empty of content.
“Desperate voters aren't looking for content,” Karelias mused. “After all, they saw that the content of their party in recent years led it to electoral crash. So, now they bypass that and only look at the shiny face. It's new, whatever.”
He continued: “They enjoy the 'Kasselakis tsunami,' they are fascinated by the noise … . And they fail to admit what the proverb says: 'The empty tin makes the loudest noise.'”
Chrystalla Chatzidimitriou, an opinion writer for Phileleftheros, a newspaper in Cyprus, saw Kasselakis as an expression of style over content too.
“In Greece, people are already talking about post-politics,” she wrote. “A man appears out of nowhere. Handsome with a model's figure. Young, just 35 years old, a golden boy who came from America. He knows how to make the most of modern media and promotes what he wants to promote.”
She added: “Without inhibitions he proclaims his sexual identity. He demands the separation of church and state and when his critics ask him about his professional past at Goldman Sachs, he answers: 'If I hadn't worked for capital, I wouldn't understand [Mitsotakis'] arrogance.'”
Kasselakis, a resident of Miami, was a youthful math prodigy who attended an exclusive Greek school before he was offered a scholarship by the Phillips Academy, a prep school in Andover, Massachusetts.
He obtained another scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he got a B.S. in finance, in addition to a B.A. in International Relations.
He worked for Goldman Sachs and founded a shipping company. Shipping news service Tradewinds has called him a “distressed asset maestro” who sold all five of the ships the company owned at a handsome profit in 2022, according to the Associated Press.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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