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An Athenian Diary

The Greeks Vote -- Elections, 2004

I started writing this entry on the day of the elections, Sunday, March 7, 2004. For weeks now, Greece has been building up to this day. This election is one of the most important in recent memory. For over twenty years, PASOK, the supposedly "socialist" party, long identified with Andreas Papandreou (economist professor at the University of California become Greek prime minister in 1981), has ruled in Greece. Now, for the first time, it seems very likely that Nea Demokratia (ND), the long-standing "conservative" opposition (with its own tainted past) will unseat PASOK. Polls published in the Kathemerini -- admittedly pro ND, the K came out unabashedly on their front page today with a headline proclaiming that people want change -- have for weeks been frozen, with ND ahead by about 5%, and the undecideds at less than 3%. Of course, To Vima, the big pro-PASOK paper, has been proclaiming with even more fervor the impending PASOK victory. Today will tell.

The past couple of weeks, election posters have sprouted all over Athens. Edie went out the day before the vote and snapped a bunch of pictures, to give you an idea of what they look like. ND's motto is change -- as in their poster above, showing two young people, with the slogan, "We're voting for political change." (A word below on the ironies.) PASOK too has taken up the "change" theme; their poster to the left, showing a particolored bridge(the photo doesn't do the colors justice), says "We're bringing the Greeks together; we're changing Greece." This theme has a certain absurdity to it; one poster on a kiosk proclaims, "Together into the New Era" -- even though PASOK has been in power since 1981 (with one break).

As often, the Communists (KKE -- the letters stand for "Interior Communist Party" -- deriving from the decision way back in the 1980s by many western European Communist parties to break with the Soviets) have the best graphic artists. One poster, just announcing a rally, is pretty pedestrian, but another, listing the characteristics of Greek life of the last few years ("poverty, unemployment, prices rises..."), shows the masks of Comedy labeled ND and PASOK and cries, "Put and end to it!"

PASOK has not had an easy time of it in the last few months. A series of scandals have come to light about sweetheart deals between the government and construction companies building the infrastructure for the Olympics; it hasn't helped that the work on everything for the Games is so far behind that many doubt anything will be finished by August -- the March 5 deadline for a number of works passed virtually without comment. Eventually, it became obvious that PASOK had to change. Leadership was passed from Simitis to Giorgios Papandreaou, son of Andreas. Photogenic, congenial, accompanied by a beautiful wife and two children, he became the focus of the party's hope, and the substance for the claim PASOK was for "change." Perhaps one may be forgiven for wondering to what degree Andreas' son really represented "change" (and for listening to the rumors repeated by people who claimed to know him well that in fact he is unreliable and does not keep his word if political expediency calls). Karamanlis, the leader of ND, bore the burden of ND's past, but seemed himself to be honest and respected.

Greek law requires everyone to vote (though one acquaintance told us he planned to skip, relying on a friend in the government to fix it for him), with penalties including four months in jail and loss of civic rights for three years for failure. Even though a third of Greece lives in Athens, many people register in their fathers' villages, and so there's a mass exodus to the polls. Election day was Sunday, March 7; everything was closed Friday and Monday to allow for travel. (Including the kids' school!) I heard a conversation Tuesday morning on the radio about how a charter flight to Volos went (no problems, the caller boasted).

Polls closed Sunday night at 7 pm, and the TV stations started broadcasting exit poll results. Actual vote counts began to come in not much later. Within 30 minutes, it was apparent that things did not look good for PASOK. By 7.30, we started to hear honking and noise-makers on the street. By 8, people were beginning to celebrate (if ND supporters) and the TV stations were showing growing crowds outside of ND headquarters here in Athens (only about a kilometer from our house). In Kolonaki, the ND people rolled out their ND and Greek flags and took to their cars and motorcycles. Lots of shouting, signing, jumping up and down. I must say, though, that the celebrations, at least in Kolonaki, seemed subdued, compared to the last time we were here during an election. (That was 1985, PASOK won, and the streets of Athens were literally impassable for hours.) A phalanx of motorcycle cops had been stationed at the Plateia, but they were standing around with nothing to do; there wasn't realli all that much traffic in the streets.

Final outcome: ND, 45.37%, 165 seats in Parliament; PASOK, 40.55%, 117 seats; KKE, 5.89%, 12 seats; Synaspismos; 3.26%, 6 seats. (A party needed at least 3% of the vote to gain a seat; several smaller parties did not make the cutoff.) ND enjoys an absolute majority; they do not need the minor parties, and PASOK cannot outvote ND even in alliance with the minor parties. So it will be ND's show now.

The relative quiet in the immediate aftermath of the elections, I think, may be related to the general sense about this election -- a certain despondency around the political situation in Greece. I know an ND supporter, but she wasn't exactly thrilled with ND's victory -- disappointed that Karamanlis announced a bunch of old men as his cabinet appointees (belying the picture of youth that the posters projected, and perhaps disappointing other younger ND voters), lacking enthusiasm for the direction policies were likely to take. ND probably won as much out of exhaustion with PASOK after twenty years as genuine enthusiasm for ND; they face, I suspect, a suspicious, if not cynical, populace. Disenchantment, and downright anger, may soon be their lot if they cannot deliver on grandiose promises of change -- promises which, given the powerful constraints the Greek government will have to operate under, almost cannot not be broken. We shall see.

--- March 10, 2004


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