Tag Archives: Greece local elections 2010

From Zorro to zero

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When then Thessaloniki Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis dressed up as Zorro a few years ago and rode through the northern port city on a trusty steed to celebrate carnival season he thought he was sitting pretty, but he was just setting himself up for a big fall.

Psomiadis’s turn as the masked hero was in keeping with his ceaseless attempts to appeal to public opinion’s lowest common denominator while putting himself on the highest pedestal. Now the governor of Central Macedonia, the 63-year-old is in danger of being toppled after a failed appeal against a suspended prison sentence. Psomiadis’s career could come to an end at a time when his particular breed of politician seems to be threatened with extinction.
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The bell tolls

Whereas the first round of local elections made losers of PASOK, New Democracy and the other parties that had tried to turn the municipal and regional votes into a battleground for national politics and the memorandum/anti-memorandum debate in particular, the second round has produced a couple of clear winners.

The independent candidacies of Giorgos Kaminis in Athens and Yiannis Boutaris in Thessaloniki have been a breath of fresh air in these polls, which the representatives of the longstanding political system have tried to drag into the gutter, and their victories provide hope that a wind of change is now gathering in Greece.

Their candidacies are significant because they are both figures that have risen out of real life rather than the smoky backrooms of the tightknit political club that has come to dominate, and choke, Greece over the last few decades. Although PASOK and Democratic Left supported both Kaminis and Boutaris, their backing did not dominate or colour their campaigns.

In fact, in PASOK’s case it was so weak, the Socialists can certainly claim no credit for the victory of either man. In fact, this very loose association with PASOK, and thereby the political establishment that people have come to despise, probably did both men a great deal of good.

Their election is also a victory for all those that chose to ignore the wall of noise created by the parliamentary parties about austerity measures, the IMF, the memorandum and so on. It is a victory for citizens that thought deeply about the problems of their neighbourhoods and decided to support people who wanted to improve their cities rather than enhance a party’s standing on the national stage.

Finally, the victories of Boutaris and Kaminis provide hope for those that believe Greece’s future lies in a rejection of its confrontational, self-obsessed and unproductive past. They give further credence to the belief that the way forward for the country must be for those who want a fairer, progressive and productive society to reclaim this land.

Given these notable victories and the incredibly low turnout of about 47 percent, PASOK and New Democracy would do well to refrain from claiming moral victories. It is for them that the bell tolls tonight and, like Greece, if they don’t change quickly they will be soon be wallowing in irrelevance.

Nick Malkoutzis

Ask not

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.

The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.

This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.

Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.

The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.

Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.

It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.

At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.

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.