Political vehicles

The week between the two rounds of municipal and regional elections is a little like Purgatory, in which most of the votes cast the previous Sunday still do not know if they will land on the side of the winners or losers. This is even more so this time, because it is not clear who has won and who has lost. Unlike the local elections of 1998, which saw a surprise New Democracy landslide and a clear defeat for the government, this time both major parties appear to be holding pretty much what they had – which leaves New Democracy dominant and PASOK looking for embers in the ashes that it can present as the flames of victory. At the center of this are two protagonists who are clearly a world apart from the rest of us. One is in heaven already and the other slowly roasting in hell. One is extreme-right populist Giorgos Karadzaferis, who won a stunning 13.6 percent of the first-round vote for the post of «super-prefect» of the combined Athens-Piraeus region last Sunday. The other is Yiannis Tzannetakos, a centrist journalist who proved an unhappy choice for New Democracy and has seen his candidacy become the single biggest issue of this countrywide election. This is a huge burden for the shoulders of any one person, especially as even New Democracy has sometimes given the impression that it seems wary of backing him – as if embarrassed by his candidacy. This is silly. And the way that New Democracy behaves here will determine how it will fare in the national elections of 2004. Doing well in local elections does not necessarily translate into victory in national ones – New Democracy did superbly in 1998 and then lost parliamentary elections in 2000. This week, the conservatives suffered a loss of nerve which prevented them from capitalizing on Sunday’s triumph. First, they allowed PASOK to set the agenda. Very cunningly, the government had suggested that its target was simply to keep New Democracy from making great gains. Then it smelled blood in the Athens-Piraeus region when it realized that Tzannetakos was proving unpopular with many conservative voters because he had sided with the government in its battle with the Church over the scrapping of religion on identity documents (whereas New Democracy had stood with the Church). So the Athens-Piraeus prefecture, which is home to about a quarter of the country’s 10 million people, became the biggest prize in a contest which should be, in the end, about the importance of local government across the country. Secondly, New Democracy has been thoroughly confused by its relationship with the Church. Seeing that Archbishop Christodoulos was unrelenting in his opposition to Tzannetakos’s candidacy, the party’s front line broke ranks. Tzannetakos’s subordinates – the candidates for the separate prefectures of Athens and Piraeus – visited the archbishop without him, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And thirdly, the conservatives have tried to distance themselves from Tzannetakos to such an extent that, like Stalinist bureaucrats erasing officials from photographs after their fall from favor, they have sought to make him invisible. First they tried to focus the campaign on his subordinates. When those two covered themselves in glory with their visit to Christodoulos, headquarters pulled another rabbit out of the hat. They created a television advert in support of Tzannetakos in which he does not appear. His place is taken by a dark, thundering sport utility vehicle that pulls up next to a tiny Fiat which is supposed to represent his PASOK rival, the sweet but lightweight Fofi Yennimata. The ostensible message is that behind his gruff manner and pompously pure Greek, Tzannetakos has the rugged capabilities, experience and endurance of a Land Rover. That’s well and good, if you can find a place in Athens to park the damned thing, but the comparative nature of the ad makes its message appear overly aggressive. And so we have one of the great innovations of these elections: Whereas most Greek parties were formed as vehicles for prominent politicians, this is the first time that a candidate is turned into a vehicle because his party is trying to hide his face. The Greeks invented democracy 2,500 years ago and they are still refining it. Which brings us to the message of these elections. As the strength of the two major parties remained more or less unchanged, and as, in the long run, it hardly matters what becomes of the Athens-Piraeus prefecture, the true shift in the political landscape is Giorgos Karadzaferis and his 13.6 percent. Although he is out of the running tomorrow, he has spent the past week working on his profile as a significant political force. As we mentioned three weeks ago, Karadzaferis was perfectly poised to pick up protest votes by New Democracy supporters angered by Tzannetakos’s candidacy. He had also been working for years on the anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-globalization, anti-immigration message that could attract angry people from left, right and center. And experience has shown that nothing succeeds more than pandering to greed and prejudice. With the momentum he has picked up, the wily Karadzaferis and his newly founded Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) can be expected to attract enough people in every village, city and town to create a countrywide network. He presents the familiar figure of the political personality who creates a party to serve as his vehicle – but he has created a vehicle which could be a bus, a bandwagon, attracting the disaffected from all over the social and political spectrum. We can contrast this with Athens’s outgoing mayor, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who set up his Movement of Free People (KEP) in 2000 when polls presented him as the country’s most popular politician by far. His party did not manage to create a dynamic, national network and earlier this year it suspended operations. It is noteworthy that both Karadzaferis and Avramopoulos (who in no way espouses the same things) came from New Democracy, as did another shooting star, Antonis Samaras, a failed former foreign minister who formed his own party while New Democracy was in government and forced its resignation in 1993. His personal vehicle, Political Spring, was based purely on his nationalistic, maximalistic stand on the Macedonia issue. Knowing this, he adopted the slogan «Ypervasi» (Transcendence), as if his groupuscule was a huge movement with a say on all issues. Today, Political Spring is defunct. A leftist splinter, the Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI), was formed by a former PASOK minister, Dimitris Tsovolas, after he left the ruling party in 1995. The following year DIKKI won nine seats in Parliament, but in 2000 none. It is doubtful whether it will survive. In all these cases, the party was formed to serve its leader. But those who could have joined him chose to stay with the big existing parties that could offer them more in the long run. Karadzaferis, though, plays to the people who feel that they have been left behind, who do not have a chance unless they join his insurgency. Today it appears that there are many such people – maybe not 13.6 percent nationwide, but almost certainly more than the 3 percent needed to get into Parliament. Its long-term survival will depend on a host of other factors. Since 1974, we have seen two interesting examples of party politics. New Democracy brought together enough disparate but like-minded groups to be able to renew its message and keep going through the years. PASOK, which appeared to be simply a mechanism for Andreas Papandreou, seemed to deny its very self when it elected Costas Simitis as its leader in 1996 – but he kept it in power beyond all expectations. Now both parties face a new challenge in Karadzaferis’s party. If New Democracy tries to accommodate those who lean toward Karadzaferis, and if PASOK believes that a strong Karadzaferis will be in its interests as it will weaken New Democracy, then it will take a lot of wrong turns by Karadzaferis himself for him to fail. If he gets stronger, no four-wheel drive vehicle will get us out of the swamp.