Democracy in school

Now that the second round of local and provincial government elections is over, everyone is trying to gauge the broader political significance of the results, probing the entrails of the process for significant omens. But sometimes the fact itself (in this case, the elections) is more important than the conclusions one can draw from it. In any case, these elections did not amount to much, other than to provide a showcase for the strengths and weaknesses of the major parties. They showed that the government still has a strong mandate, while PASOK also retains significant strength among voters and has a responsibility to build on it. For all those who take part in elections, however, the elections are something else: They are the ritual of democracy in action. And this year, in last Sunday’s second round, I had the honor of being called up for electoral duty in my constituency. After my many years of experience as a voter and as a journalist, I finally had the opportunity to discover another aspect of the elections – the amount of hard work and devotion involved. It is at the municipal level that one sees most clearly the passion of those who run for public office, but also the way in which intense competition makes people act strangely. In our suburb, both candidates for mayor in the second round were from the same party. So there was little difference between them and their council candidates and they were driven by the same desire to win. We did not see the two main candidates at our polling station, but we did see plenty of their party representatives. They were distinguished by their combative spirit, as if certain that someone was planning to cheat against them and their party and they had to keep an eagle eye out for any funny business. To the rest of us, they came across as somewhat pompous and ridiculous – given the negligible differences between their beliefs. In charge of our polling station was a young judge, a woman in whose skills and character one could see how experienced we Greeks have become with the rituals of democracy. As well as being very charming and polite, and dedicated to what she was doing, this judge was exceptionally able, serious and, above all, most capable in carrying out a difficult task. She dealt with everyone graciously, but when party representatives tried to push her she was quick of mind and steely in resolve. For us, her «team» as she called us, she was like a teacher. And the happy atmosphere of the Grade II class which was our polling station was conducive to making even the older ones among us feel like we were back at school. Among those on electoral duty, like myself, were two pretty young women (one a student, the other just out of university) who did most of the hard work – with good cheer and seriousness. They would pause only to chirp and giggle happily whenever they saw an acquaintance in the schoolyard. The rest of us, three men in various stages of middle-age, had gone to the polling station before daybreak with heavy hearts, hoping that we would not be needed to give up the only day we get to rest. And yet, even though the day was very long and demanding, it was a valuable experience even for those of us who already know everything. I was in charge of checking identity cards and crossing voters off the electoral roll. Generations passed before me. Many parents brought their children with them, and the judge would make a point of giving them the envelopes for the ballots, getting the children involved in the game from an early age. This was all so different from the vision of Greece that we get from watching television. During the quiet moments, I would look out at the schoolyard, with the voters coming and going in waves, pausing to chat with friends in the lazy Sunday sun. And I thought of the many adventures this nation has had – from the first steps of democracy in Athens to our current union with Europe. And I thought of the nations that will take a very long time before they can enjoy such quiet elections. I thought of the burned schools that I had seen on foreign assignments. Sitting at a school desk again, I suddenly felt an unprecedented gratitude for those who have the gall to think they can represent me. It was the touch of democracy.