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On the road

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a line of graffiti on a bridge on the Thessaloniki ring road that reads: “New Democracy, Kazantzidis, Christ.” Are they the words of a slightly unhinged conservative supporter or an inspired triptych to lead Greece into better days?

Maybe they’re meant to galvanize Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis ahead of his crucial speech at the Thessloniki International Fair on Saturday. If he remembers what New Democracy was meant to stand for when it came to power in 2004, combines it with the stoicism of Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, who sang of pain and hardship, and then seeks some divine intervention, Karamanlis may have a chance of halting his government’s seemingly inevitable slide into obscurity.

For the premier to see this slogan, he would have to drive to Thessaloniki. Instead, he will fly here. It’s a shame, as a drive from Athens to Thessaloniki would have given the prime minister a chance to reflect on where his government has gone wrong in the 5.5 years it has been in power. If he’s to have any chance of staging a remarkable comeback at the next general election, then acknowledging his failings, and those of the people around him, is the minimum necessary.

A drive through Attica, for instance, would be an ideal opportunity to think about how issues such as immigration and waste management have been ignored and are now blighting Greece’s capital. Equally, the inability to protect the city’s dwindling greenery, allowing on its watch thousands of hectares of forest to be destroyed more than once is a blot on the conservatives’ record.

The apparent determination of Public Works Minister Giorgos Siouflias to concrete over much of Attica has strengthened people’s suspicions that the conservatives see the environment something to overcome rather than to protect. Souflias’s announcement this week of a project to build some 80 kilometers of new roads in Attica, just a week after 20,000 hectares of land in the Athens basin were burned to a cinder was crass and gave the impression of a government that’s unresponsive to events.

Heading north out of Attica and into Viotia, Karamanlis will able to ponder further evidence of Greece’s shocking environmental record. Despite countless court decisions, official investigations and prods from the European Union, the Asopos River remains contaminated with poisonous chemicals that seem to be leading to more cases of cancer in the area. Like previous governments, New Democracy has only paid lip service to the idea of cleaning up the river and punishing those that have polluted it.

AthensPlus_Karamanlis_ThessalonikiInstead, it has focused its efforts on a grand and costly scheme to divert the Acheloos River from western Greece to the farming plains of Thessaly, which Karamanlis would pass next on his journey north. It’s a project that only has the support of the farmers in central Greece, a part of the world that Souflias, the minister driving this scheme, hails from.

This government’s inability to reform in any way the country’s agricultural sector and instead, like PASOK did for so many years, to give in to one demand after another simply to buy time and votes is another heavy burden New Democracy must carry into the next elections. It’s something that Karamanlis would be able to think about while passing through the Vale of Tempe, where just this Monday livestock farmers closed the national road to make their demands known and, with alarming speed, have them met by an administration has shied away from necessary confrontation.

This stretch of road is also where in April 2003, 21 schoolchildren were killed in a coach crash. As he passes the small monument erected by the side of the road in their memory, the prime minister could reflect on the fact that were they alive, these children would now be headed for university. But the passing of watered-down education reforms and the lack of conviction to stand by any of the changes the conservatives had envisaged for secondary and tertiary education means that universities are still places of frustration and wasted talent as much as they are of teaching and learning.

And so, Karamanlis would arrive in Thessaloniki, where locals, like in many parts of Greece, will complain that the government has overlooked them when it comes to developing infrastructure and creating jobs. A glimpse of the construction of the northern city’s metro system after years of delays and false starts might raise Karamanlis’s spirits but his constituency is here, he will be aware that this alone will not transform Thessaloniki.

As he passes the picturesque headquarters of the local prefecture, the prime minister might reflect on the fact that his party’s most prominent representative in the northern city, the quick witted, media hungry but devoid of substance Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, is the type of politician that New Democracy and Greece could do without. Karamanlis’s inability to attract more capable people into his government may be something that he will soon regret.

To reach Thessaloniki, Karamanlis would have traveled on an ever expanding network of national roads. He could perhaps reflect with some pride on the grand public works projects taking place the length of the country. Maybe this is evidence of the progressive Greece, the country that is resistant to economic downturns, impervious to naysayers and blessed with professionals that can get the job done. But then maybe he will reflect again and wonder whether, with the clock ticking on his government’s time in office, a series of construction projects overseen by Souflias is the legacy that New Democracy wants to leave behind.

Unless, the prime minister can come up with some new and convincing ideas very quickly, he will only have kilometer after kilometer of smooth asphalt to look upon as one of his government’s few achievements in more than half a decade of running this country.

Maybe he would be better off flying to Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 4, 2009.