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The Greeks and Their Elections (Part 1)

March 14, 2004

( Research Service)- One week ago today, Costas Karamanlis’ Nea Demokratia party won control of Greece’s government, amidst cheers from the many Greeks who’d grown tired of PASOK and their decade-long rule.

However, much remains to be done: Greece must get ready for August’s Olympics, potential bilateral negotiations with Turkey over Cyprus reunification loom, and Nea Demokratia must take the initiative in regards to their much-vaunted promises to improve the economy.

So, the question now is, does the average citizen think the politicians can execute on their promises? Will the country be ready for the Olympics? And will the change in power mean any real differences ahead?

This weekend, we spoke with Greeks of all ages in the northern city of Thessaloniki to get the word on the street. Thessaloniki saw the country’s most dramatic change in terms of parliamentary seats, with Nea Demokratia picking up 6 and PASOK surrendering 4.

Incoming Prime Minister Karamanlis appointed himself minister of culture within his first two days in office- thus promising to take on the mantle of responsibility for Olympic preparations. He and his country now face the Herculean task of finishing major infrastructure, including the main Olympic stadium before August. Yet even if they finish the actual construction, the elaborate security measures such as camera tracking systems will scarcely have time to be installed, let alone tested.

Despite the persistent assurances of Greek-Americans who patriotically insist their country will be ready, we found that Greeks who actually live there have different opinions. Said one Thessaloniki travel agent, Dimitra, “…I don’t think that everything will be finished, but I hope. It’s becoming more difficult,” she added, “because the building works have frequently stopped and now they’re short of money.”

Lamenting that she would scarcely have time for a vacation due to the expected mass of tourists, the travel agent said that nevertheless if she had been allowed a vacation she’d skip the main event altogether, and head for the islands. This preference was also stated by several of our other respondents.

Official Olympic workers in Athens are meanwhile said to be preparing to work 30 out of 31 consecutive days when the Games are in full swing. We can expect the same situation with workers from all branches of the service industries having to deal with the tourist multitudes this summer.

A representative of one such profession, a taxi driver, just laughed when asked if the country would be ready for the Games. “God only knows,” he said.

A policeman from Serres, Christos, was also bemusedly pessimistic. “Karamanlis has made a symbolic action,” he said. “It’s mostly to give public reassurances and show the outside countries we are taking this seriously. But in the end we will work very hard at the last minute and things will be OK.”

Nevertheless, the likelihood that even when constructed all facilities will be less perfect than envisaged has knock-on effects, and not only for security. For example, says one Thessaloniki professor, “they wanted to have a roof for the swimming pool, but this is almost impossible now. The original plan was to have cameras hanging on the roof for television, but now they will have to come up with some other way.”

The Greeks we surveyed turned out to be less euphoric than immediate post-election reports showed. While most were pleased to see the PASOK government go, citing that it was more or less past its sell-by date, they were decidedly ambivalent as to whether or not the change of power would amount to a qualitative change.

When asked about its effect on policy, policeman Christos smiled and said, “everyone knows our foreign policy and economic policy are decided by the EU, and also the USA. So there is little to do, really, for our leaders except continue as they are told.”

Yet despite this reality it was still widely perceived that Nea Demokratia represented, at least for now, the lesser of two evils. “Let’s face it, PASOK had become a mafia,” said the professor. “They were in power for too long, and this reduced the possibilities of a meritocracy in state hiring, but also of democracy itself… being out of power, Nea Demokratia did not have the chance to grow such tentacles. So for now, they offer better conditions for meritocracy.”

An 18 year-old student voting in her first elections, Popi, declared that she was not very interested in politics but voted for Nea Demokratia because they were more popular. She was taking a wider view than the general university scene in Thessaloniki, however, which shows visible sympathies for the Communist KKE party. KKE won only about 5 percent of the vote nationwide.

A teacher we spoke to claimed that PASOK may be gone but that its legacy will live on. She pointed out the fact that previously-planned, unpopular legislation came into effect 3 days after the elections. But it works for the ruling party, she says: “…Nea Demokratia can enjoy the influx of money from the new law, while also blaming its passage on the old PASOK government, because it was they who created it.”

The woman also voiced concern over several ministerial appointments in the new government. Especially strange, she said was in regards to the immigration authorities. “It is very funny, because they’ve put a man in charge of immigration policy who is always opposed to immigration,” she said. “He spoke of having a goal to restrict the number of immigrants in Greece to 300,000.” It is believed that many more immigrants than that are currently here.

Unhelpfully, it seems that a general attitude of ignorance prevails in regards to the rights of European Union citizens to settle in Greece. A Dutch woman living in Greece who needed to perform some bureaucracy states that the Greek officials she encountered demanded to see her Greek passport and working papers- “they didn’t seem to know that times have changed and European Union citizens cannot be treated like immigrants.” It is unclear who exactly the immigration authorities consider to be immigrants and who not.

A veteran observer of Greek politics in Athens predicted that there will be a ‘deal’ over the Macedonia name issue, though stopped short of saying Karamanlis’ government will accept Macedonia by its constitutional name. One option that has been discussed is for the implementation of a two-standard policy, by which Greek could call Macedonia whatever it wished, while the rest of the world would respect the country’s constitutional name.

Says the Athenian observer, “the government will never go against public opinion. So I don’t think they will recognize the country as ‘Republic of Macedonia.’ A deal won’t be so simple as that.”

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