OPINION

The wheel of fortune

In two weeks, on October 13, Greece is going to hit some interesting political turbulence, a storm that could change the face of a political system that has been pretty much the same since the restoration of democracy in 1974. Even the biggest change – the victory of the Socialist party in 1981 – turned out to be little more than a hiccup: PASOK was the continuation of the old client-patron mechanisms that also served as other charismatic founders’ political vehicles, rather than the start of a revolution. Now, 28 years after the utter discrediting of the extreme right, Greece is about to find its first extreme right-wing populist sitting at the middle of the political system again. The haphazard yet seemingly inevitable rise of Giorgos Karadzaferis is a shining example of how Greek politics work and don’t work – and how the sleep of reason brings forth monsters. It also illustrates how the wheel of political fortune keeps turning, at one time raising people above their natural reach and at others crushing them. It was only in June that Athens’s once-unstoppable mayor, Dimitris Avramopoulos, announced that he was ending his Movement of Free Citizens (KEP) – 15 months after he formed the party. Avramopoulos, elected mayor in landslides in 1994 and 1998, had regularly been the country’s most popular politician, even before forming his center-right party in March 2001. But after that, it never received more than 16 percent in polls and slipped below 5 percent before Avramopoulos, a former New Democracy party member, pulled the plug. Astute observers had noted when KEP was formed that it would find it very difficult to organize and present candidates all over the country in its first real test, next month’s municipal and regional elections. This proved to be the case. So the elections of October 13 have already claimed their first victim even before they have been held. On the other hand, Karadzaferis, an independent MP initially elected with conservative New Democracy, caught the wheel of fortune on the upswing by deciding to run. Opinion polls consistently give him around 10 percent in the race for «super-prefect,» a position that is quite meaningless (with responsibility for little more than three parks in the Athens area) but which results from the vote of 2.7 million people. So whoever wins here carries the flag for his or her party. A poll published by Eleftherotypia on September 20 gave PASOK’s Fofi Yennimata 39.4 percent of the vote, followed by Karadzaferis with 14.8 percent and the ND candidate, Yiannis Tzannetakos, with 13.7 percent. Other polls have placed Tzannetakos above Karadzaferis but still, this is no consolation for the independent, formerly centrist journalist considered by New Democracy to be a crossover choice and successor to a similar candidate whom New Democracy backed and who won last time. Instead, ND has gained no votes from the left while they bleed profusely from the right. The cause is a combination of political circumstances, luck and personality. The alignment of the stars has not been in favor of New Democracy’s candidate. Tzannetakos is not popular with the party’s grassroots members, many of whom are planning a protest vote. Tzannetakos is best known for his pedantic radio and television style, in which he speaks his very own purified form of Greek, devoid of foreign influences to a degree verging beyond paranoia. So he does not have the charming persona to win votes. But Tzannetakos is also severely hampered by the fact that he was a standard-bearer for the government in its war against the Church over whether state identity cards should declare the bearer’s religion. So passionate was Tzannetakos that he insulted Archbishop Christodoulos repeatedly and volubly by referring to him as Mr Paraskevaidis. The message was clear; Tzannetakos (metaphorically) defrocked the head of the Church, calling him by his surname and refusing to buy the religious mumbo-jumbo. The problem, though, is that New Democracy was squarely behind the Church in the conflict and its voters have remained so. Christodoulos has managed to issue a steely «I forgive those who sinned against me» kind of statement, but, responding to Tzannetakos’s grovelling requests for a meeting that would be seen as the archbishop’s blessing, the cleric’s aides responded that there was no archbishop at the archbishopric, only a Mr Paraskevaidis. On the other hand, the wily Karadzaferis has continually stressed his devotion to the Church. And he has the credentials, booted out of New Democracy in 2000 for calling party spokesman Aris Spiliotopoulos «Salome» (combining good Christian condemnation with innuendo) and continually disagreeing with party leader Costas Karamanlis’s effort to present New Democracy as a liberal rather than a right-wing party. Karadzaferis has named his own personal political vehicle the Popular Orthodox Rally (with its acronym, LAOS, meaning «The People»). And this week he said he would pull out of the race if Tzannetakos apologized to the Church leadership. Such is the magnitude of his Christian kindness. But Karadzaferis has yet another advantage: He has his very own television station, the illegal «TeleCity,» (which he recently rebaptized «TeleAsty» in order to stress its Greekness). This broadcasts his speeches and pious visits to churches repeatedly. When not showing its owner, the station runs ads for his book on the lives of the Orthodox saints and the Greek edition of the classic anti-Semitic poison, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. TeleAsty has also been doing a sterling job stirring the pot over the November 17 story. It was Karadzaferis who kept insisting that the gang’s suspected senior operative, Dimitris Koufodinas, was being hidden by the Americans in an apartment in a coastal Athenian suburb. It was a perfect claim, also involving the secret services of other countries in the terrorists’ 27-year run. When Koufodinas suddenly appeared at police headquarters and turned himself in, Karadzaferis just kept on, undeterred. With no evidence, he claimed that a former PASOK minister was involved with November 17, gaining himself a million-euro libel suit. He quipped that by the time the November 17 investigation was over, half of PASOK’s MPs would be in jail. So Karadzaferis, without a national party organization, is running for election in a single constituency which will blast him to national prominence if he manages to get anything close to the 10 percent that the polls have been giving him. And he is perfectly primed to do well, working as a bottom feeder, drawing power from every possible prejudice. He is nationalistic, he is pro-monarchy, he is anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-homosexual and anti-immigrant. He claims that everyone (usually shadowy organizations such as the Bildenberg Club or Zionists) is against Greece and that our only defense is «patriotism» and Orthodoxy. He is a populist strategist, who keeps his television station going even when the government tries to limit the power of bigger business and media interests. He presents himself as the underdog, yet takes advantage of every gap in the system to make himself more powerful. His greatest asset is the tolerance with which bigots are treated in Greece, perhaps because so few people are informed about issues that many prejudices are adopted as fact across the political spectrum. Karadzaferis, who became prominent in 1989 with the publication of an inflammatory pamphlet that included nude photographs of then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou’s young mistress, only managed to draw the ire of opinion-makers in Greece when he said he would invite French extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen to his party’s founding ceremony earlier this year. And still no one noticed. But just as Le Pen shocked the socks off the French last summer, Karadzaferis is going to spring his own surprise, claiming support far greater than we expected. As the threshold for a party’s parliamentary entry is 3 percent, a strong showing by Karadzaferis in the Athens-Piraeus vote is likely to give his party great momentum and draw all those anti-Something grumblers dissatisfied with the current middle-of-the-road bipolar system of ND and PASOK. It is ironic that soon after the crushing of November 17, the extreme-leftist terrorist group, we might see the extreme right come back to stay.