Letter from Thessaloniki

At the beginning of the 20th century, women in Thessaloniki had a great deal to be angry about. They could not vote, it was very difficult for them to get a divorce and they had few rights regarding their children. Furthermore, married women had no control over their prika, or dowry. Payment – or «gifts» – from a prospective bride’s family to the groom or his family at the time of marriage was still standard practice at the turn of the century. Things have changed a bit since those trying times. In his book «The Secret History of Thessaloniki,» Marios Marinos Charalambous notes: «After World War II, women won the right to vote. In the municipal elections in the early 1950s, the statute dictated that whoever received the most votes wins and is proclaimed the mayor of the city. Dr Aristi Payiataki, a lung specialist, won those elections. Consequently she was elected the first woman mayor in Greece. But she was disqualified for being female.» It so happens that I am closely related to this gripping political drama since Aristi Payiataki was my mother. What was most remarkable about her lead in those elections was the fact that she ran with a so-called populist party, a right-wing faction. One should be sensitive to the conditions of those «red scare» years. After wartime liberation, internal Greek quarrels led to the outbreak of the civil war, and northern Greece became the center of the conflict. Thessaloniki, the «mother of the poor» in Tsitsanis’s songs, was well-known for fanatically voting «red.» The left-wing party of the time, the Union of the Democratic Left, was founded in 1951 as a substitute for the Communist Party, which had been outlawed since 1947. It was my mother’s opposition. However, postwar political parties in Greece seemed to be centered more around leaders than based on ideological platforms. And yet despite belonging to the «black right» through and through, Aristi Payiataki amassed all those red votes that led her to first place, and almost into the Town Hall. How could this happen? It was simple: People came to her saying: «Just because it is you, and because we know you have saved patients suffering from tuberculosis without accepting any money, we are going to overlook the fact that you are on ‘their’ ticket.» To say things have improved since those dark days is a pretty big understatement. These days women rule the world. Or, at least, a bit more of it. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, of Liberia, has been sworn in as Africa’s first elected female president. Michelle Bachelet was recently named president of Chile, and polls say that Segolene Royal, France’s Socialist Party bid for the country’s presidency, is likely to beat the front runner on the right, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Not to mention Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. However, although mayoral candidate Chryssa Arapoglou, supported by the main opposition PASOK party, has rightly maintained that the city «is in a state of dangerous inertia,» she can hardly beat the current mayor. Supported by New Democracy, Vassilis Papageorgopoulos seems to have liked the experience of being mayor. Nevertheless, Yiannis Boutaris, an independent, is more committed to providing the groundwork of cultural and spiritual success. There are many here who consider him as the big outsider in next Sunday’s elections. That is, if the 42 percent barrier is not surpassed. A vivid visionary and a successful winemaker too (he has also set up a bear sanctuary in Nymphaio, near Florina), Boutaris is one of the most popular local personalities. He was also one of Time magazine’s «European Heroes» in 2003. Other candidates include Georgios Karatzaferis (Popular Orthodox Rally), Tassos Kourakis (Coalitions of the Radical Left), Agapios Sahinis (Communist Party) and Thanassis Agapitos (Radical Left Front/Communist Party – Marxist-Leninist).  As far as prefectural elections go, the main contenders remain the current New Democracy-backed Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, an ardent populist who is considered the «sure horse» of these elections. If Psomiadis has not thrown in the towel against his own party, he has come close to it. He constantly plays the «Macedonian card» against the «evil ruling Athenians.» The first Greek sportswoman to win an Olympic gold metal (in track events), PASOK-backed Voula Patoulidou is up against Psomiadis next Sunday. She is definitely a lady of the greatest ability, albeit less experienced. Though her rival Psomiadis likes to berate the government in Athens for moving further right along the political spectrum, the fact is that Patoulidou has the ability of moving faster in all directions. Much faster. Stars of various parties have sought to convince voters that local politics can be fun, involving culture as well as athletics and macroeconomics. Now, 122 women have been selected to fight seats in the greater area of Thessaloniki.   By next Sunday, Thessaloniki could experience some surprises. None of this is certain, of course, and not only because politics is an uncertain business. But six days before the final results, Mr Boutaris is persuading more and more people to take him seriously as a potential mayor. Pundits call it momentum and Boutaris certainly has some of this. His soft voice and concerned frown could prove as potent an electoral asset as Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s calm and mysterious smile.