Hope tempered by fear

The election of Giorgos Kaminis as the next mayor of the capital is a breath of hope for Athens. This should not be seen as a shadow over outgoing Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis, who, before the second round of voting, was widely expected to remain in City Hall, but rather as an expression of voters’ desire to try out people who have proven themselves in fields other than politics. Kaminis, a soft-spoken professor of law and former Ombudsman, surprised everyone when he chose to give up the sanctuary of academia and a state institution for the rough and unpredictable world of politics, especially when he was not a member of either of the two main parties. The PASOK government chose to back Kaminis but did it in such a half-hearted way that, in effect, he came across as an anti-establishment figure at a time when a large number of voters are thoroughly sick of the establishment. Kaklamanis, although feisty and often his own man, had the full backing of the New Democracy party and was seen as a member of the old school of politicians who have driven Greece into its current mess. Kaminis’s comfortable victory in Athens is echoed by the surprise win in Thessaloniki of winemaker and conservationist Yiannis Boutaris. Greece’s two biggest cities were run by New Democracy members for decades; now they will be run by strong-willed individualists. This has delighted all those voters who dared to dream that capable new people would enter the fray and try to break the hold of the two parties that have run Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974. It is interesting that, in addition to many unpredictable results during these elections, an unprecedented number of people did not vote at all, making the strongest point as to what they think of the current political scene. Their message, however, does not appear to have reached the two main parties, which have both tried to claim the results of the municipal and regional elections as their own triumph. In other words, for them it is business as usual. Kaminis faces the great challenge of trying to stop the decline of the capital at a time when the country is on the brink of bankruptcy. Athens has probably never been in such a difficult period since World War II and the civil war that followed. Again we face a time of poverty and hardship. We are not at war but ever greater numbers of people – both newly poor and immigrants – need help from the state and municipal authorities. Kaminis and his team will have to improve the life of residents through inspired intervention and hard work, as money will be very difficult to raise at a time when businesses, citizens, the city and the state are already overwhelmed by debt. Among the greatest challenges will be to tackle the crime that is threatening to turn parts of central Athens into no-go areas reminiscent of the worst aspects of more violence-prone societies. Measures must be taken to make the city attractive both to its residents and its visitors, and this will take a lot of coordination with the state authorities, who have often allowed Athens to suffer without any help. Achieving this will depend mainly on the police finally doing their job thoroughly and persistently – because nothing has contributed to the capital’s decline more than the general sense of lawlessness, ranging from gangs’ exploitation of immigrants to illegal parking and rampant pollution. In Greece, we say that each miracle lasts three days, and there is a real fear that all the hopes invested in Kaminis will crash against the daily grind of institutionalized corruption, incompetence and indifference. If the former citizens’ advocate cannot bring the city’s machinery around to his vision of how a civil society should be run, he will have to fall back on his knowledge of the law. Because the greatest burden on Athens – in the past and today – has been indifference to the laws that make society function. Kaminis must always bear in mind that he was elected to change Athens. His soft-spoken manner helped to get him into office. His success depends on his putting the fear of the law into all who have grown fat and lazy at the city’s expense.