Re-elected for the seventh time in a row

Portaria, a beautiful, traditional village 13 kilometers from Volos, has cobblestone streets, ornate springs, old mansions and ancient plane trees. At an altitude of 600 meters on the southwestern slopes of Mount Pelion in superb surroundings with a view of the Pagastikitos Gulf, it is famed for its beauty. Lately, it made news for another reason – its mayor. In the recent municipal polls, Vassilis Kontorizos came first for the 10th time, with 63.76 percent of the vote. After seven terms as village president, he has been elected mayor three times since Portaria became a municipality including other villages. Apart from a break during the dictatorship, Kontorizos has been in politics for 25 years, regularly boosting his share of the vote: 52.60 percent in 1998, 57.36 percent in 2002 and 63.76 percent in 2006. Kathimerini wanted to learn from him and his fellow villagers the secret of his success at a time when politicians are in general disfavor. ‘Patriarch of mayors’ «My door is always open to everyone,» says the hospitable mayor. On his desk is a note from Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who calls Kontorizos the «patriarch of the mayors,» as do locals and journalists in the area. The conversation starts with Kontorizos’s priorities for this next term in office, focusing on his people-centered policy. He speaks with pride of projects completed and planned, such as the Portaria-Makrynitsa and Alli Meria sports centers, and the Portaria-Makrynitsa sewerage system, which is gradually coming along, the Portaria experimental all-day primary school, the Alli Meria all-day primary school, the Katihori playschool, the Alli Meria creches, and the nursery schools of Portaria and Alli Meria. Immediate plans include a two-story car park in Portaria, and rebuilding the Theoxenia hotel, once the most luxurious in the Balkans. «Grecotel has undertaken to rebuild the Theoxenia, which will create jobs for us. The first condition we set when we called for bids was that the staff, except for management, were to be locals.» He speaks with zeal of the qualities a mayor should possess: «He must be humane and close to the locals. Besides, the municipality is the authority that is closest to the people. When the mayor knows their needs and cares about the village, he can be more effective than an Athens-based authority that doesn’t know what is going on. Besides, he has to demand things from the government, whether he belongs to the same party or not. When you’re elected, you leave your party membership outside the Town Hall. Otherwise you won’t succeed,» he says. What is the secret of his success and when should his political career end? «You have to see yourself as a servant of the people and not play at being an authority. As for the end of my career, it might be the next term of office or not. Who knows the Lord’s will?» He admits frankly to having made mistakes in his long career, «but never intentionally. I don’t claim to be infallible.» What sacrifices has he made? «I didn’t see my children grow up. Now I miss my grandchildren. And if I’d devoted myself exclusively to the profession of civil engineer, I’d be rich by now.» Initially, a walk through the village confirms his words. «Exceptional. He’s looked after us. We’re very fond of him. Worthy and capable,» are phrases we hear repeatedly. First we meet farmer Apostolos Kuleras, 50, a candidate on Kontorizos’s ballot who was not elected. «He’s the best mayor; he’s given so much for so many years, especially to the farmers. He’s built roads that lead to our fields and has never refused us anything.» «Who else will be good enough to succeed him?» asks Iokasti Evangelou, 72. «He’s done so much for us and I can’t imagine anyone else doing the same.» Residents in the other villages agree. «Between the wars, Portaria started to be abandoned, but he put in infrastructure that makes people want to stay,» says Kiki Karena in Stayiates. Her sister, Elli, who has lived in Stayiates for two years, says the mayor is clever «because he has cultivated good relations with local residents. They think it’ll be the end of the word if he doesn’t get re-elected.» Quite a few locals see things differently, but were unwilling to be quoted by name. Some canceled appointments they had made with us, while others who had initially praised the mayor approached us later to express negative views, but begged us not to write anything that would betray their identity. «I would be foolish not to admit that he has done things. Nobody denies that,» says one woman, «I voted for him because I didn’t like his political opponent. But is it right to hold the position for so many years? We can’t live and die with the same mayor. Only Hoxha in Albania and Castro in Cuba spent so long in power.» Another local notes that such a long stay in power causes authoritarianism. «We’ve experienced his high-handedness; he used not to be like that. But by appointing cronies, he has created a huge entourage.» Another says: «He’s smart because he has managed to get all his rivals onside. None of his colleagues dared question him. And when he found out that some candidate, even one of his own, had ambitions, he’d get rid of them. None of the leaders of his opponents ever dared to try get elected a second time. After defeat, they all gave up.» Thomas Letsos, 73, is one of the few who don’t mind speaking openly. «I have no tavernas or hotels that I’m afraid of him closing down,» he said. «He promised projects during his previous terms that were never implemented. He promised us a botanical park and that he would fix up the Metochi woodland with springs and footpaths, but if you go there you’ll see a shantytown and garbage. He’s all talk. I didn’t vote for him this time.» Another project that concerns the locals is the five-a-side soccer field the mayor wants to build in an area that has been set aside for years for a church and square. A Mr Tsioukis says: «The matter has gone to the Council of State. We have collected 24 signatures from the 32 families who live in the village. I’m not against sports, but when we haven’t got even a square or a cafe to meet in, what are we going to do with a sports field? It will spoil the traditional look of our village if it goes in the place where the mayor wants it.» Patronage A political opponent, Theodoros Drosos, believes the mayor has established strong links of patronage. «Is it possible for him to be re-elected mayor when municipal taxes have gone up by 254 percent during his eight years as mayor? He has only given an account once in eight years. He has to inform us all. Look at Anavra, which doesn’t have a large population. They’ve done so many infrastructure projects, and their mayor has been in for 12 years, not 40.» One of the municipal councilors on the other side, Nikos Rigionis, complains about water: «One commodity we have in abundance does not bring us any corresponding income. The water we give Volos every year brings in 80,000 euros, whereas the state water utility sells the same amount to residents of Volos and Nea Ionia for 750,00 euros. If we had been getting even half that sum over the 10 years we have supplied water to Volos, we would have fixed the sewerage network without waiting for the government.» Whatever complaints the locals have, the fact is that the majority vote for him, as they have for the past 40 years. (1) This article first appeared in the November 19, 2006 edition of K, Kathimerini’s weekly color supplement.

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