Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has survived a no-confidence vote over a phone-tapping scandal that has shocked the nation and sparked mounting concern in the EU.
After three days of rancorous debate, the censure motion was defeated on Friday by 156 votes to 143 in the 300-seat chamber of deputies. With passions animated by disclosures of wiretaps being placed on politicians, army top brass and journalists, the debate had run into the wee hours before the vote.
“You cannot pretend to be ignorant,” said the opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, who described Mitsotakis as the mastermind of “a criminal network” that wilfully listened in on friends and foes alike. “You knew everything and for six months you have lied. You knew about the surveillance because you ordered it.”
Parliamentary arithmetic had determined the vote’s outcome but the result would be a “pyrrhic victory”, Tsipras told the chamber. “It will not prevent your electoral defeat,” he railed.
With polls due in the spring the spy scandal shows little sign of abating. Mitsotakis had publicly welcomed the motion, seeing it as a chance to compare and contrast his centre-right government’s record with that of Tsipras’s Syriza party, in office between 2015 and 2019.
But the revelations have come at a cost. For a politician more used to being viewed as a rare success story by the European right – feted for what is widely seen as Greece’s spectacular turnaround after prolonged economic crisis – the allegations have not been a good look.
Until the scandal erupted six months ago, Mitsotakis’s New Democracy party had enjoyed a double-digit lead over Syriza. This week a survey conducted by the polling company MRB narrowed it to 5.9 points, lower than any other time.
Claims of state surveillance have snowballed since Nikos Androulakis, who heads Pasok, the country’s third largest party, revealed he had been wiretapped by the national intelligence service, EYP. Subsequent checks showed that Androulakis, an MEP, had also been targeted with the Israeli-made spyware Predator.
From the outset, the opposition had sought to label the scandal “Greece’s Watergate”, emphasising Mitsotakis’s early decision to place EYP under the control of his office.
Mitsotakis has, however, acknowledged that Greek intelligence monitored Androulakis before Pasok’s leadership contest in 2021. In an address to the nation in early August, after being forced to let go of the country’s spy chief and his closest aide who had oversight of EYP, he described the wiretapping as wrong although stopped short of saying why his political opponent was monitored.
On Friday the prime minister said again the surveillance was “not politically acceptable” even if legitimate under Greek law. Earlier this month he called the affair the “biggest mistake” of his four-year tenure in power.
But the perceived heavy handedness with which the government has responded to the scandal – culminating in the alleged obstruction of ADAE, the communications watchdog tasked with investigating the claims – has reinvigorated criticism. Filing the censure motion on Wednesday, Tsipras told MPs the independent body had confirmed that six senior public figures, including the minister of labour and head of the armed forces, had been spied on by EYP.
“How patriotic is it for you to have under surveillance the leadership of the armed forces?” the Syriza leader asked on Friday.
Androulakis has repeatedly alluded to the “dark practices” deployed during the 1967-74 military regime. Constitutional law experts have also weighed in.
“Greece has to comply with European principles as far as surveillance is concerned,” said Nikos Alivizatos, emeritus professor of constitutional law at Athens University. “It worries me that in all of Mitsotakis’s speeches he prioritises the issue of national security and says almost nothing about the right to privacy, as if security is the rule and human rights the exception.”
Greece is among the countries that have been the focus of inquiry by the European parliament’s Pega committee, set up to investigate the illegal use of malicious spyware by EU member states. The committee’s findings paint an excoriating picture of a nation that alongside Hungary, Poland, Spain and Cyprus is among the continent’s five worst offenders.
“What we have found in Greece has been alarming,” Sophie in ’t Veld, the committee’s rapporteur, told the Guardian. “If we were to look at it as a jigsaw of 1,000 pieces, then 990 of those pieces point in the direction of either Mitsotakis or his entourage being responsible for the abuse of spyware.”
The Dutch politician complained that since the start of the inquiry the committee had been persistently thwarted in its endeavours. “There are just too many people in big positions blocking all attempts at transparency and getting to the truth,” she said, adding that Christos Rammos, the judge who heads ADAE, had been “intimidated and harassed”.
“If you look at the list of confirmed targets spyware is not being used for ‘national security reasons’ but political purposes,” she said.