Big undercurrents, little change

With the opposition New Democracy party winning 30 prefectures, the ruling PASOK party 22 and another two going to independents, the results of the municipal and regional elections showed that the conservatives had gained but had not shaken the Socialists’ ability to govern. Of the country’s 54 prefectures, 24 changed hands during the two Sundays of voting, and the results in some were so close that it made it very difficult to understand how far apart the two major parties were. This allowed both to claim victory. New Democracy had the added pleasure of seeing its candidate for mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyianni, win with a record 60.5 percent. But it was another woman, PASOK’s Fofi Yennimata, who deprived the opposition of a grand slam, taking the Athens-Piraeus super-prefecture with 56.3 percent of Sunday’s vote. A few months ago even senior PASOK officials had expected the party to do far worse, with some saying that only 15 prefectures could be won. The results of the two rounds of voting allowed the government to say that it had shaken off the challenge of New Democracy, which had campaigned with the slogan «Send a Message» in a bid to shake the government’s credibility and force it to call elections ahead of spring 2004 when they are due. PASOK officials had feared a disastrous showing in local elections, such as the one that forced Portugal’s Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Guterres to resign last December. PASOK General Secretary Costas Laliotis, after a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Costas Simitis, said the results were «positive and optimistic for PASOK.» But he added that the party «must analyze the messages and incorporate the conclusions from the elections results into its policies and activities.» PASOK was also satisfied by its cooperation with the small Coalition of the Left (Synaspismos) with whom it won eight of its 22 prefectures. But PASOK was also shaken by the fact that it lost with two of its strongest and traditional constituencies – farmers and the poorer urban sectors. One of the significant shifts in the elections was the fact that many leftist regions and municipalities on the periphery of the Athens-Piraeus region shifted toward New Democracy for the first time. This was seen as signaling a change that has been observed in other Western European countries. The younger residents of depressed areas are no longer looking to the left for solutions to their problems but to the right and center right as expressed by New Democracy. Another significant shift was the sudden appearance of the extreme right, in the form of Giorgos Karadzaferis who won 13.6 percent in the first round for the Athens-Piraeus super-prefecture. It was not clear, however, how much of this percentage he could expect in national elections. New Democracy was happy in that it easily held on to the country’s major cities – Athens, Thessaloniki and Piraeus – and increased its prefectures from the 27 it won in 1998. It also seemed to dominate in the farmers’ vote and increased the number of municipalities it held in the broader Athens region from 8 to 24. All indications, party officials said, were that New Democracy was the strongest political force in the country.