Good morning, Mr Mayor

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor,” the late US President Lyndon Johnson said, summing up the oft-unhappy lot of the man or woman who chooses to take charge of a municipality. Having to contend with a distillation of the challenges that governments face at a national level, but in many cases with nowhere near as much power, mayors often fight losing battles. In fact, it’s often a surprise that people run for this office. Nevertheless, with local elections in Greece looming on November 7, like jumbo jets waiting for clearance to land, mayoral candidates are lining up on the horizon.

Just this week, Costas Gioulekas, briefly a deputy interior minister in the previous New Democracy government and a current MP for the conservatives, announced his candidacy for mayor of Thessaloniki. His move highlighted that mayoral candidates seem to fit into one of two broad categories: politicians who have tried their hand at national politics but whose ineffectiveness has ensured a return to local backwaters and those who want to use city hall as a stepping stone to a bigger stage. Gioulekas, who says he will run as an independent, vanished without a trace during his spell at the Interior Ministry, where he was in charge of relations with the press – a hapless spin doctor who watched dizzily as New Democracy spun out of office.

Another former member of the conservative government who has just announced his intention to run later this year is Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis. Since taking over at City Hall in January 2007, the former health minister has proved compassionate but controversial. His time as mayor has been marked by both significant achievements and glaring oversights.

Kaklamanis’s election campaign slogan was: “I don’t have a lot to say, I have a lot to do.” Critics claim he delivered exactly the opposite, saying a lot but doing little. His supporters argue he’s had to continuously fight fires because of the growing social problem – linked to immigration, poverty and crime – in central Athens.

The “City Mayors” website, which runs mayor-related news from around the world and allows residents to give their city hall supremo marks out of 10 each month (Kaklamanis averages at about 6.3 this year) carries some comments that are indicative of how Athenians feel about the Andros-born politician.

“Nikitas Kaklamanis is a very simple person who understands our problems in Athens and stands by us,” writes Gogo. “He looks after poor people, immigrants, children and old people. Every day and night, people eat at a ‘social restaurant’ and can take clothes and shoes and have medical care.”

Kaklamanis’s record in caring for society’s most vulnerable is certainly respectable. His municipality has set up a supermarket and pharmacy where the poor can shop for free or at subsidized prices. A similar scheme for clothes saw more than 1.6 million euros’ worth of goods being distributed last year. With the help of the Church of Greece, the City of Athens serves 5,600 free meals a day. The municipality has also opened a hostel for homeless people, where, unfortunately, a 53-year-old man tragically fell to his death this week. All of these are laudable initiatives but many Athenians are asking: “Is that it?”

“Kaklamanis consistently makes empty promises – lots of hype and no action,” writes Panos P on Citymayors.com. “When good things happen, like the refurbishment of a park, it is never managed properly. Why redo Monastiraki Square and then allow it to be vandalized every night? Where is the mayor promoting Athens as a tourist destination? Where is the mayor cleaning the center so tourists don’t need to look at trash and graffiti? Where are the municipal police stopping people from driving on pedestrianized streets?”

These gripes, and many more, will be familiar to Athenians who feel that Kaklamanis has fallen short of what’s required. They would point out that at least 800,000 people live within the boundaries of the City of Athens and that not all of them are destitute immigrants or families with four children who can’t make ends meet. There is a distinct feeling that in dealing with the fallout from the worsening economic situation and the influx of undocumented migrants, he has forgotten that he has a majority, not just a minority, to tend to as well.

The efforts to clean up central Athens, to make it safer and more livable have simply not worked. It still feels dirty and disorganized. Athenians tend to have brief flings with the city center, dipping in for shopping or drinking and then scurrying away again, rather than a long-term relationship in which they invest in its upkeep.

Kaklamanis has taken a leaf out of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s book in terms of being a social crusader, but “Red Ken’s” success largely stemmed from the fact that he made residents want to live with their city rather than just live in it. Livingstone, for instance, set an example by using public transport and mounted a successful campaign to get more people to use buses. Between 2000 and 2008, bus usage went up by 6 percent each year. Any mayor’s first goal should be to act as a figurehead that can mold the identity of a city and stoke its citizens’ interest and pride. London had this under the far-from-faultless Livingstone. Athens has lacked it under Kaklamanis.

However the caveat to all this is that the mayor of Athens is hemmed in by unenviable bureaucratic and political constrictions. When the Labour government created the post of London mayor in 2000, it ensured that the successful candidate would have a good degree of control over policy areas such as environment, public transport and policing. The Athens mayor has none of this. To get most things done, the City of Athens has to engage in the type of brokering with ministries that makes the Cyprus reunifcation talks look like a gathering of old friends. Too often the ministries and the municipality will blame each other for the lack of action, and responsibility for improving the city will fall into a convenient gap created by bureaucracy and political differences.

Perhaps this means that the candidates applying for the job should not be politicians worn and torn by the demands of national politics, nor those that find it convenient to dump the blame for failure at the government’s door without realizing that mayors are also part of a government, local government. At this critical juncture, Athens needs a man or woman who is passionate about the city, a politician who can inspire its citizens. It needs someone who will say little and do a lot. Kaklamanis has only got a few more months to prove that he’s the man for the job.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 23, 2010.

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