Greek PM survives confidence vote but phone tapping scandal rumbles on

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has survived a no-confidence vote over a wiretapping scandal that has shocked the nation and sparked growing concerns in the EU.

After three days of bitter debate, the motion of no confidence was defeated on Friday by a vote of 156 to 143 in the 300-seat Chamber of Deputies. The debate had been fueled into the early hours before the vote, stimulated by disclosures of wiretapping among politicians, senior military officials and journalists.

“You cannot pretend to be ignorant,” said opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, who described Mitsotakis as the mastermind of “a criminal network” that deliberately wiretapped friends and foes alike. “You knew everything and you lied for six months. You knew about the surveillance because you ordered it.”

Parliamentary arithmetic determined the outcome of the vote, but the result will be a “Pyrrhic victory,” Tsipras told the chamber. “It will not prevent your electoral defeat,” he grumbled.

With polls due in the spring, the espionage scandal shows little sign of abating. Mitsotakis had publicly welcomed the motion, seeing it as an opportunity to compare and contrast his centre-right government’s record with that of Tsipras’ Syriza party, which was in office between 2015 and 2019.

But the revelations come at a price. For a politician more used to being viewed by the European right as a rare success story – widely hailed for Greece’s spectacular turnaround after a long economic crisis – the allegations were not a happy sight.

Until the scandal broke out six months ago, Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party had a double-digit lead over Syriza. This week, a poll by polling firm MRB capped the figure at 5.9 points, lower than at any other time.

Allegations of state surveillance have increased since Nikos Androulakis, leader of Pasok, the country’s third-largest political party, revealed he had been bugged by national intelligence agency EYP. Subsequent checks revealed that Androulakis, an MEP, was also a target of the Israeli-made Predator spyware.

From the start, the opposition had tried to label the scandal as “Greece’s watergate,” underscoring Mitsotakis’ early decision to place the EYP under his office’s control.

However, Mitsotakis has acknowledged that Greek intelligence monitored Androulakis ahead of Pasok’s leadership contest in 2021. In an address to the nation in early August, he called the wiretapping false but did not say why his political opponent was being monitored.

On Friday, the prime minister again said the surveillance was “politically unacceptable” even if it was legitimate under Greek law. Earlier this month he called the affair the “biggest mistake” of his four-year tenure.

But the perceived doggedness with which the government has responded to the scandal – culminating in the alleged obstruction of ADAE, the communications monitor tasked with investigating the claims – has reignited criticism. When Tsipras tabled the motion of no confidence on Wednesday, he told MPs the independent panel had confirmed that six high-ranking public figures, including the labor minister and the chief of the armed forces, had been spied on by EYP.

“How patriotic is it for you to oversee the conduct of the armed forces?” the Syriza chief asked on Friday.

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Androulakis has repeatedly alluded to the “dark practices” employed during the 1967-74 military regime. Constitutionalists have also spoken out.

“Greece must adhere to European principles when it comes to surveillance,” said Nikos Alivizatos, professor emeritus of constitutional law at the University of Athens. “It worries me that in all of Mitsotakis’ speeches he prioritizes the issue of national security and says almost nothing about the right to privacy, as if security were the norm and human rights the exception.”

Greece is among the countries targeted by the European Parliament’s Pega Committee, set up to investigate illegal use of malicious spyware by EU member states. The panel’s findings paint a chilling picture of a nation that ranks among the continent’s top five worst offenders, along with Hungary, Poland, Spain and Cyprus.

“What we found in Greece was alarming,” Sophie in ‘t Veld, the committee’s rapporteur, told the Guardian. “If we look at it as a 1,000-piece puzzle, then 990 of those pieces indicate that either Mitsotakis or his entourage are responsible for the spyware abuse.”

The Dutch politician complained that the committee’s efforts had been stubbornly slowed down since the beginning of the investigation. “There are just too many people in big positions blocking all attempts at transparency and truth-telling,” she said, adding that Christos Rammos, the judge overseeing ADAE, had been “intimidated and harassed.”

“If you look at the list of confirmed targets, spyware isn’t being used for ‘national security reasons,’ it’s being used for political reasons,” she said.