NEWS

Americans in Greece gripped by US elections

The United States is bracing itself today for the outcome of «Super Tuesday» in which 24 states are holding primaries or caucuses to decide which Republican and Democratic candidates they will back in the race for the White House. This year’s Super Tuesday is bigger by far than in previous years, both in terms of the number of states voting – more than half of all pledged Democratic Party delegates and more than 40 percent of the Republican Party delegates will be decided today – and in terms of the interest that has been generated in this presidential campaign. Events are being followed keenly by voters from California to Maine but also by Americans abroad. The importance of the issues at stake, the quality of the candidates and the growing accessibility of the campaigns means that Americans in Athens, Greece, are just as hooked as Americans in Athens, Georgia. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with Republican and Democrat supporters in Greece to gauge their feelings on the campaign. Roller coaster «I think the race has been like a roller-coaster ride, very unusual,» says Katerina Papathanassiou, the chairman of Republicans Abroad in Greece. «There have been a lot of surprises in this election but that adds to the tension and the excitement,» says fellow member Kathy Cambas. Although Senator John McCain is leading Governor Mitt Romney in the polls for the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton is ahead of Barack Obama for the Democrats, the race remains too tight to call, especially as the polls have been proved repeatedly wrong in this campaign. «This is one of the most exciting elections we’ve ever had,» says Yvette Jarvis, vice-chairman of Democrats Abroad in Greece and special advisor to the mayor of Athens on immigration issues. Record numbers «This has brought out so many people that have not been involved before. The interest here, not only from Americans, but from Greeks as well is in record numbers,» says Jarvis. «Now we have candidates who look as if they can change the image of the United States in the world. There are a lot of Greek-Americans who are fed up with having to defend their country or slink home quietly who now have the ability to say: ‘Look here is change; here is the bright new face of America.’ That’s exciting.» Executive Chairman for the Democrats Abroad Bill Kiritsis believes that the impact can be seen in the number of Americans in Greece and Greek-Americans living here who have expressed an interest in voting. «The only time that more than 10 percent of Americans living here voted was in 1998 when Michael Dukakis was running for president but this year more people are coming out,» he told Kathimerini English Edition «I’ve had people calling me who haven’t voted for 30 years.» The economy When he was running against President George Bush senior in 1992, Bill Clinton adopted the simple but effective slogan: «It’s the economy, stupid.» It seems that 16 years later, the No 1 issue in the campaign is again the economy. While the state of the US economy has a global impact, one might expect other issues, such as foreign policy, to be higher up the agenda for American voters in Greece. However, both Republicans and Democrats here see the economy as being the most crucial topic, especially because of the impact that the dipping value of the dollar has had on people’s pensions. «There are some Americans here living on their dollar retirement, which is very difficult,» says Papathanassiou. «We have seen the impact in attendance at our functions, where people who used to reply immediately are now hesitating. It used to be that living here was fine because with the dollar you were way ahead.» Papathanassiou says that the Republicans Abroad are working to get the Medicare health plan recognized outside of the USA, which she believes would be a big boost for retirees. The increasing cost of living in Greece is not helping Greek-Americans in their efforts to resettle here either. «A lot of these people came to retire here because of the low cost of living and suddenly things have turned around,» explains Cambas. It seems that some Greek-Americans have given up on making ends meet. «I know people who have left Greece to go back to the States because they cannot survive here on their dollar pensions,» says Kiritsis. The importance of the economic factor on getting Americans in Greece interested in these elections is also highlighted by John Brady Kiesling, a former political counselor at the US Embassy in Athens and a supporter of the Democrats Abroad in Greece. Greek-Americans who were born in Greece, went to the United States, worked there a lifetime, then came back to their villages, often didn’t feel it was there business to vote. «Suddenly what’s happened is that the value of their pension has been cut by 50 percent and some of them are genuinely struggling. Politics matters when your livelihood has been undercut by bad policies,» Kiesling tells Kathimerini English Edition. Foreign policy The emphasis on the economy does not mean that other issues are not troubling US voters in Greece. As Americans abroad, they are perhaps more aware and sensitive to the mixed reaction to their homeland’s foreign policy. This is one area where the Republicans and Democrats do not see eye to eye. «The world wants to be safe and that is what President Bush has been trying to achieve,» insists Papathanassiou, who was born in Texas and came to Greece with the US Foreign Service. But Jarvis believes that President George W. Bush’s foreign policy and the war in Iraq have made it tough for Americans living abroad. «I am really tired of having to make excuses for my country’s foreign policy. I have traveled a lot and I have never heard before the things I hear now about the USA. And that’s a big factor for a lot of Americans abroad. «We don’t feel that status quo politicians can change that for us,» she says. Diplomatic analyst Kiesling believes that the qualities of the two Democratic candidates, who are vying to become America’s first women president or first African-American leader, is doing much to improve the profile of the USA in Europe. «A crucial thing now is that Americans overseas are looking at how Europeans are responding to the Obama-Clinton race, where the mere fact that these are the two candidates is sending a powerful message about American democracy; that it’s not just empty words, that it’s not necessarily about huge private interests manipulating the system, that you can produce change. «That message is getting across in these elections and it’s vitally important,» says the former diplomat. Media coverage The quality of the candidates involved in the race and the importance of issues at stake mean that the foreign media have been giving the Democratic and Republican primaries much wider coverage than in previous years. «This is the first time that the presidential race has had so much exposure in Greece,» says Kiritsis, who is the vice chancellor of enrollment and student affairs at the University of Indianapolis in Athens. «Every newspaper has articles about it. People I speak to know about the issues. This time the Greek press is a little bit in shock about what is going on,» says Jarvis who believes that the Democratic candidates in particular have caused the cynics in the Greek media to view US politics from a different point of view. Although the coverage this year is much wider than in previous campaigns, the increasing use of the Internet by candidates means that their speeches and debates come into the homes of Americans living in Athens and Thessaloniki just as easily as the homes of voters in New York and Los Angeles. «I would say that for the person that is very interested in following events and does not have a computer, then you are in trouble. I would say the computer is the main source that you can go back to if you have missed something,» says Cambas, who was born in Florida and educated in the USA. «I watch everything I can on YouTube.» A recent poll in the US suggested that almost a quarter of American voters are getting information on the presidential race from the Internet. The Internet has proved a useful tool for Americans abroad as well. «CNN is our beacon but I have been following the debates on the Internet,» admits Jarvis. Television and Internet polls are suggesting that on both sides of the political divide, this is likely to be one of the closest presidential contests for a long time. Candidates In Greece, opinion is also divided over who is the best candidate between front runners Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney on the Republican side and Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democrat side. «Obama speaks well, he’s a fresh face but has no experience,» says Papathanassiou of the Democrat candidate. «You can’t take a person who is in his first term as a senator and turn him into a president. A governor is something different because you have control of an entire state, a tremendous budget and many issues across many areas. McCain is more experienced than anyone.» «With McCain, what you see is what you get but with Hillary not so much,» says Cambas. Even within the Democrat camp, opinion is divided. «Being a Greek-American, I would have to say they are more with Hillary but the gap is closing,» says Kiritsis. «Obama has awakened a passion, he’s awakened a consciousness,» says Jarvis, a black woman who has made it on the Greek political scene. «The American students that are here are with Obama. Greek-Americans are also aware of Obama’s support for Greek issues in Illinois.» Despite the increased coverage of this election campaign both the Republicans and Democrats in Greece have been active in trying to convince Americans living here to come out and vote. It is known that at least 80,000 American citizens live in Greece but there are estimates that the actual figure is much higher. However, only a small fraction of these residents actually vote in the US elections. Both sides are united in appealing to Americans to exercise their voting rights. «We and the Democrats have a hard time convincing them to vote because they come back to Greece and think America is doing well because you know the system is steady and you can depend on it,» Papathanassiou tells Kathimerini English Edition. «They know they can go back to the US and find the same things. They get back in to the Greek way of life.» Americans will get a chance to vote in Greece this Friday and Saturday and can find more information at www.VoteFromAbroad. org, www.democratsabroad.org, or www.republicansabroad.org. Democrats Abroad, for the first time, will be sending 22 delegates to the national convention, where more than 2,000 delegates will elect who will run for president of the USA. «It may be that 22 delegates are not that many but symbolically, as a reminder to Americans overseas that they do have a voice, it’s a major step forward,» says Kiesling. «Our emphasis is on participation. We do not push candidates as an organization,» says Jarvis. «It is the first time in history that a global primary will give a voice to Democrats and Americans abroad a voice on issues that affect them. Our ultimate goal is to have as much participation as we can not only in the primaries but in November as well.» If the interest in US politics over the last few weeks is anything to go by, then a high turnout for the presidential elections in November in Greece as well as in the US should be a certainty. [email protected]