Muddled message in the ballot box

As official results of the first round of municipal and regional elections trickled in late last night, officials of the ruling PASOK and conservative New Democracy party drew conclusions which seemed to give each what they sought. New Democracy appeared to be beating PASOK on all fronts, except for the combined Athens-Piraeus prefecture, where the government had taken the battle to the opposition. The issue was expected to be clearer today, when the votes of nearly 10 million people nationwide were counted in the race for 57 prefects and 1,033 mayors and community leaders. But talk shows were dominated by the sudden emergence of a powerful extreme right voice. Giorgos Karadzaferis, a former New Democracy MP, who seemed to be well exceeding the 10 percent he had received in pre-election polls for the Athens-Piraeus «super-prefecture.» With 10.96 percent of votes counted, PASOK’s Fofi Yennimata had around 38.7 percent, followed by ND’s Yiannis Tzannetakos with 27.9 percent and Karadzaferis with 13.7 percent. This could give the latter’s newly-founded LAOS party strong impetus heading into the national elections of 2004. New Democracy, the official opposition, appeared to confirm its comfortable lead over the government in recent opinion polls, taking an unassailable lead in the country’s three largest cities: Athens, Thessaloniki and Piraeus. In Thessaloniki, it appeared certain that incumbent Vassilis Papageorgopoulos would clear 50 percent comfortably and so avoid a runoff vote with PASOK’s Spyros Vouyias next Sunday. In Piraeus, Christos Agrapidis also appeared close to repeating his first round win of 1998. In Athens, with 12.7 percent of the vote counted, New Democracy’s Dora Bakoyianni had 48 percent, making her election over PASOK’s Christos Papoutsis (with 25.6) almost certain, this Sunday or next. New Democracy officials believed that the conservatives might even make gains in the battle over the country’s 54 provincial governments (or prefectures) and three combined «super prefectures.» In 1998, New Democracy won 27 prefectures and one super-prefecture, while PASOK got 24 and two super-prefectures. This time, as New Democracy tried to turn the local polls into a national referendum on the government under the slogan «Send a message,» PASOK concentrated on a perceived weak link in New Democracy’s campaign – the Athens-Piraeus region. This region is home to about a quarter of the country’s 10 million people, making PASOK’s victory invaluable in public relations terms. ND won here in 1998. This time it chose to back journalist Yiannis Tzannetakos, a centrist who is not an ND party member. But Tzannetakos provoked anger in the Church of Greece as he was a strong supporter of the government’s campaign to scrap the mention of religion on state identity cards. New Democracy, however, had backed the Church in the dispute. Many ND voters chose to register a protest vote, backing Karadzaferis. Mega Channel’s election expert, Ilias Nikolakopoulos, said that it appeared that 24 percent of those who had voted for New Democracy’s candidate in 1998 had backed Karadzaferis, which would have given him about 10 percent. The rest of his support appeared to have come from PASOK, Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI) voters and new voters, Nikolakopoulos said. Senior ND official Giorgos Souflias tried to present Tzannetakos as having a good chance in the second round. «I believe that the government will get the message both in the first round and in the second,» Souflias told reporters. «With Mr Tzannetakos, there was a problem with our getting the support of New Democracy voters, and these stemmed from issues such as the identity cards, so one cannot draw conclusions regarding PASOK and New Democracy,» he said. «Political conclusions will be drawn from the result over the whole country.»