From Zorro to zero

When then Thessaloniki Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis dressed up as Zorro a few years ago and rode through the northern port city on a trusty steed to celebrate carnival season he thought he was sitting pretty, but he was just setting himself up for a big fall.

Psomiadis?s turn as the masked hero was in keeping with his ceaseless attempts to appeal to public opinion?s lowest common denominator while putting himself on the highest pedestal. Now the governor of Central Macedonia, the 63-year-old is in danger of being toppled after a failed appeal against a suspended prison sentence. Psomiadis?s career could come to an end at a time when his particular breed of politician seems to be threatened with extinction.

A joker in the political pack, he portrayed himself as the ultimate man of the people and was one of the stars of a generation of TV-friendly politicians who could comment on anything while knowing nothing. The one-time nightclub owner and singer has been on TV so often, it?s a surprise he doesn?t have LEDs for eyes and aerials for ears. The darling of the morning news shows, he could be admired most days of the week putting on Berlusconi-esque shows of defiance and charm. He was flattering, literally in many cases, to deceive.

After serving between 1990 and 2002 as a New Democracy MP, Psomiadis spent another eight years as Thessaloniki prefect. During that time, he contributed to Greece?s second-biggest city becoming one of the dirtiest, most chaotic, environmentally unfriendly and poorly managed cities in Europe. While Psomiadis was in charge, Lake Koroneia, a supposedly protected wetland, was nearly destroyed by pollution and over-irrigation, leading to Greece losing 20 million euros in European Union funding. For each of these blows to the prestige of the famous city and to its inhabitants? quality of life, Psomiadis had a stock answer: ?I didn?t do anything wrong.?

So, it came as no surprise that this week Psomiadis — back on TV after the four-day media blackout — rolled out exactly the same excuse after a Thessaloniki court rejected his appeal against a suspended one-year jail term for dereliction of duty. The governor was found guilty of reducing the fine of a local gas station owner who was adulterating fuel in 2005 from 89,000 euros to 5,000. True to form, Psomiadis claimed his offense was insignificant in comparison to the kind of shenanigans other politicians get up to.

?I did not order any tilting submarines, nor did I sign bribe-induced contracts for telecommunications equipment, nor do I have any offshore companies, nor did I embezzle public funds, nor did I sell off public property, nor did I reduce the fines of famous people by 1,000 times, nor was I part of the stock exchange scandal, nor did I sign the [EU-IMF] memorandum,? he said.

It takes a politician with real chutzpah to admit to doing a favor for someone caught cheating customers and the taxman and to then present it as a minor indiscretion. Psomiadis justified lessening the gas station owner?s fine as an act of leniency because the businessman was suffering from health problems. He has batted away other negative comments by underlining his patriotism, which he displays by publicly defending Macedonia?s name and integrity from those he believes are trying to undermine and plunder it.

Had he shown a similar fervor for his job, Psomiadis might have had some justification in asking to be tried in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law. Instead, his time in office is a tale of wasted opportunities, publicity stunts and suspicions of corruption. While Psomiadis may have been tried for one offense, a number of allegations — such as funding nonexistent projects — piled up during his prefectship. People are now coming to realize that rather than ?I didn?t do anything wrong,? Psomiadis?s catchphrase should be ?I didn?t do anything at all.?

The governor will be taking his case to the Supreme Court but the appeal court?s decision to uphold his conviction last week stands as something of a landmark in Greek politics. It signals that time is almost up for Psomiadis and politicians of his ilk. Regular guest spots on morning TV shows are no longer enough to convince voters of his usefulness. The pensioners and housewives that make up the bulk of audiences for the shows he frequents now have pressing problems that cannot be solved by cheeky quips.

His relatively comfortable election as Central Macedonia governor last November, a year after he made a failed bid for the New Democracy leadership, could be the last significant political act in Psomiadis?s colorful career. His party has expressed its desire for him to continue as governor — even though a failed appeal at the Supreme Court would force him to step down. The leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, has also suggested that the will of the people, as expressed at the polls last November, should outweigh the ruling of any judges. However, these are just token gestures of support for a fading figure in the hope he might bequeath his sizable personal following to them rather than fulfill dreams to set up his own party.

Psomiadis?s rapid demise and the shameless jockeying for position it has prompted go some way toward putting paid to an often-repeated myth in Greek politics: that the sole responsibility for the country?s plight lies in the hands of populist left-wing politicians and greedy unionists who held Greece back and inflicted long-term damage on its prospects. Psomiadis, for years the figurehead in New Democracy?s northern Greek bastion, has shown that politicians on the right have been just as adept at populism and capable of standing in the way of progress. It shouldn?t be forgotten that the conservatives, along with PASOK, dominated local as well as national politics for the last three decades. It was only in last year?s elections, when PASOK won 92 of 325 municipalities and ND 52, that there was a real change in the balance of power.

Psomiadis is a flagrant example of why Greece?s two major parties should assume their responsibilities for the mess the country is in rather than search for bogeymen. He is also living proof that how good you look on your horse when you ride into town is irrelevant. It?s what you leave behind when you trot off into the sunset that really matters.

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