On The Greek Election Trail

On The Greek Election Trail

Amongst the mother-in-law jokes so popular in the 70s and 80s, I don’t recall many about the wife’s mother being the returning parliamentary candidate for the coalition of the radical left in Greece.

Nevertheless, this is currently the position I find myself in.

I have moved to Greece at a time of great political upheaval. And my mother-in-law is at the very centre of it.

The Left party of Syriza, elected in a surrounding spirit of hope and great optimism barely 9 months earlier, have called a general election following Prime Minister Tsipras’ forced resignation.

This was after hard negotiations failed to avoid what many considered a miserable capitulation to the country’s European creditors and the request of another bailout for the debt-wracked country. Forcing a split in Syriza’s party.

My mother-in-law – my pethera – is seeking re-election for Syriza in her hometown seat of Ilia down in the Peloponnese, having won a surprise victory there in the general election of June 2012, and then more comfortably again in Syriza’s sweep to power in January of 2015. It won’t be easy.

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My mother-in-law, when she was just a simple potter as her profession, had become politicised during the monstrosities of the Greek dictatorship back in 1974.

Along with many of her generation she had fought against the regime, become active in the community and in the feminist unions, and finally, years later, this led to her standing for parliament in this seat – a mix of urban areas and some of the largest farmlands in the country, which have been badly affected by the Greek crisis but, as a whole, are not in as deep poverty as experienced elsewhere in the country.

However, since first standing back in 1982, my mother-in-law, and the country, have seen Greek politics become a much larger and far more climatic undertaking.

*

I have just arrived in the county.

Just started in a new life here. But, like the rest of Europe, the world even, I am gripped by this election. And my new life will just have to wait until Greece has decided its direction too.

Passions are running high throughout the land. It is all anyone is talking about: Tspiras’ failed negotiations, the country being held to ransom by Europe. I am interested myself in seeing just how different a Greek election campaign will be from those I am used to back home.

Before getting a unique insider’s view and hitting the campaign trail in my mother-in-law’s constituency, I first attend a rally for Tsipras in a large square in the Egaleo district in western Athens.

There is a large crowd. It flows back a long way, past the Byzantine church, over the wide busy roads – stopping traffic into Athens centre. In this world of multi media coverage, the politician making open-air, rallying speeches here in front of a large mobilised mass in a town square seems a real throwback to a very different age.

The crowds come in a receptive mood. There doesn’t seem to be heckling or trouble-makers. Many take the opportunity instead to conduct debates amongst themselves, and more still have brought elaborate picnics and ouzo and treat the occasion as a great chance to socialise.

Politics being the social glue of the country.

Tsipras talks for an hour. Some in the crowd tell me he is looking tired already, this early into the campaign. The crowd are appreciative, but as one man  – a man who had been applauding loudly next to me all evening – tells me:

“Yes he was impressive today,” he flicks an olive into his mouth, rolls it round with his tongue, thinks for a while. “Ah… he can be impressive every day if he likes. But will I vote for him this time? I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I’m still thinking…”

He offers me an olive.

Many in the crowd seem equally unsure what is best for the country in these elections. A smooth ride for Tsipras, as he must have hoped when he called the vote, perhaps not so likely now.

*

Down in the Peloponnese, south of the country, it is swelteringly hot, even in the September late-evening.

I am accompanying my mother-in-law in one of her first campaign outings.

After a drive of over an hour, up in the hills high above her home town of Amaliada, we arrive at a small, old village and take root in a characterful kafeneio – the local gathering place for older generation Greeks, where coffee and rakis are sunk and debates rumble and rage between slow games of backgammon.

Greek election campaigning IIIAfter initial chit-chat and the obligatory hospitality – it is insisted that everyone in our visiting campaign team, who have descended unasked on these villagers, take drinks, including me – my mother-in-law stands to make a brief speech to the assorted workers, farmers, small shop owners, old women in traditional headscarves, an old priest. The odd crowd who have gathered here.

The campaign visits these kafeneia as there will have be one known Syriza voter in the town who will have been tasked with rounding up locals from the area, out on the farms, to come and listen to the constituency MP.

As the sound of Tsipras addressing the nation on an unwatched tv floats down from an open window above, my mother-in-law talks to the villagers and, surprisingly to me, concentrates on Syriza’s fraught international endeavours rather than her own local successes.

Any lingering optimism that the pro-Syriza feelings of January may still endure here soon vanishes as the evening opens out to questions from the crowd.

“You stood there 9 months ago and promised things. Syriza has done nothing!”

“Even if you want to help us farmers, you can’t. Germany, the Troika, they decide everything. You can do nothing, why do you even pretend?”

The mood appears angry. All points are made at high volume and with overly aggressive exclamations and ugly body language, or so it seems to my fey British senses anyway.

The locals even turn on each other. When one claims he has lost over 40,000 euros over the last 6 years his friend gives him short shrift.

“Well that’s before Syriza then, isn’t it? Why do you even talk? Malaka!” He throws a muja, the open handed symbol of derision, in his friend’s face sat next to him, dramatically turning his wooden seat away to complete his point.

It appears to me that Syriza’s historic victory at the beginning of 2015 perhaps wasn’t a rising of the concerned voice for the underprivileged, those struggling at the bottom, but actually a vote just to get rid of the European-organised austerity which had affected them personally and, now that fight has been frustrated, the feelings here have dissolved back into the old self-serving concerns.

Whether I’m right or not, I note the arguments all centre resolutely on Europe and the measures and the memorandums, and any social or local issues fail to get any air time in these old cafes whatsoever. It seems a campaign forced into a very narrow, but massively heated, area.

The loudest opposing voice appears to be coming from a man I remember well from last January, when I flew from England to visit my mother-in-law on the day of her victory. The man bought me tsipouro after tsipouro, drinking with me, making toasts, slapping at my face, hugging me vigorously in the main square in Amaliada on the night of the election results, so happy was he with Syriza’s victory.

9 months, it appears, is a very long time in Greek politics.

There are further angry complaints made in the village square on this thick, hot, heavy evening. The villagers here complain that many in Greece are cheats, that the country as a whole cheats and wheedles. The Greek character is flawed, they say.

My mother-in-law replies, calmly if a little bemused. “So you’re waiting for democracy to change this? For parliament to change the Greek character? Ok. Well, if you are, which is the party to do it? The old parties of corruption?”

PASOK and New Democracy have squatted on Greece for over 40 years.

The country is these parties. These parties are the country.

Since the fall of the dictator the country has alternated between one of these parties in government. They did much to modernise Greece, it’s true. It wasn’t a European state when either of these parties were born. PASOK brought in free education and health care. Both parties steered the country to wealthier, more prosperous times. But both did much to ruinously mismanage the country too.

The nepotism flowing through the ruling dynasties of both parties – the Papandreou family in PASOK, the Mitsotakis and Karamanlis families in New Democracy – premierships just handed down like an inheritance. The bloated state, with civil service jobs created solely to give out to party faithfuls. The corruption and bribery and pocket lining.

Concentration on sweeping away the old, corrupt party politics has become Syriza and Tsipras’ mantra in this election.

And Greek elections are especially renowned for their malfeasance.

Votes are swapped for favours done, jobs given. Candidates are told that they will get a vote, or not, depending on what they or what their rival will offer.

It has been long in the blood of many Greeks, and it seems almost impossible to change.

I learn it to be true myself when I am sent to the corner mini-market, the bakaliko, to buy cigarettes – essential on the campaign trail – for my mother-in-law.

“Ah so you’re Efi’s gabros eh? Her son-in-law…” the owner of the shop says to me. “That reminds me…”

Before I’ve reached home again the owner has phoned my mother-in-law to ask for a job for her son. Hinting that the New Democracy rival has already offered her something. “Tha meh volepseis…?” she says down the phone – So… will you give me something..?

Rousfeti – the granting of favours for something in return. Ladoma – the nefarious backstairs payment of money in the brown paper bag for special political treatment. The Greeks even have their own specific words for these malpractices.

Ksemperdevoume me to palio,” Syriza now have as their rallying cry – done with the old.

It is to be printed on all the leaflets and campaigning materials.

Though, in that often Greek dilatory way, the manifestos haven’t been printed or delivered yet, so there is nothing to actually hand out on the campaign trail.

And even when they are ready – a few days after the vote – there are no pictures of Tsipras, no winning images. This is the Greek Left: collectivism, no individuals, no gimmicks.

It seems bizarre to be following this political campaign of a party of ex-Trotskyist leftists, here in Greece, outdoors, in the heat with the cicadas and the smell of jasmine in the air, rather than surrounded by cold Eastern Bloc architecture and comrades dressed in boiler suits.

But Syriza themselves laugh at the unreconstructed Greek Communist Party – the KKE – with their hardline views and even more militant campaigning organisation skills.

I watch a KKE rally on tv and am struck by the crowds chanting out their slogans in unison in hard, unsubtle, indoctrinated fashion. And I am plagued daily outside my window by KKE vans touring the local streets relaying the strict messages through loud speakers with snatches of blasted Soviet-style music.

There are also, of course, two other off-shoot parties of the KKE who passionately hate each other: the Marxist-Leninist KKE and – whatever you do, don’t muddle them up – the KKE Marxist-Leninists.

The Communists, despite their heroic history in the country – they were the ones who bravely fought side by side with the British during the Second World War and were despicably treated by the Allies afterwards, leading to 4 years of terrible civil war in the country and the imprisonment and displacement of many thousands of Greek citizens –  seem a little ridiculous to me now, in today’s world.

They are unapologetically unreconstructed: opposing gay rights, strident on Greece’s ongoing naming negotiations with Macedonia. Their mission seems to oppose anything put forward by any party.

It is not so surprising why Tsipras’ new leftist party was able to appeal last time round.

But even if Syriza believe they are the pragmatic Left, if the snapshot of feeling here in this typical Peloponnese village where we have started the campaign is anything to go by, they have their work cut out to convince the people of this again.

Quite ridiculously, in this small village, there are three kafeneia all within a few steps from each other. In the past a village would have a kafeneio for those with right wing views and a kafeneio for those left wing views.

As my mother-in-law moves between each one to chat to the patrons, sitting and – despite the heated, shouted, conversations – sharing ashtrays with them, the debates continue in the kafeneia she’s just left behind, like secondary explosions, in the previously calm café atmosphere.

“Why did they come here? Just to drink our coffee?”

“Well what can she say anyway? Syriza: 5 months, 50 lies.”

“Why don’t we vote for (new centrist party) Potami? They haven’t had the chance to lie to us yet…”

Like the prosaicism of those able to start an argument in an empty room, these conflicts are heated and pugnacious despite all seemingly agreeing with each other. I don’t hear anyone putting forward the Syriza point of view.

And yet, despite all this, as we leave the campaign team feel it went well and are confident that most here will still vote Syriza in two weeks’ time.

*

Another campaign day, another long journey into the countryside.

This time six of us, including the squashed MP, are piled into a small car and we’re to tour a selection of tiny villages, again high in the remote hills: “This is a good village for us. Last time we took 5 votes here…”

We stop at a grocery, but the shop owner doesn’t want to talk. His daughter has, that very day, emigrated to Australia. He seems very down and, unusually for a Greek, he tells us “I don’t feel like talking politics today.”

Expressing the key Greek feeling that my mother-in-law has to address, he adds “Nothing will ever change. It’s the system. The system is broken…” He says this to her, patting her arm, with a sad, knowing air. As if everyone knows she is wasting her time on this fools errand as an MP and he feels bad to be the one to have to break it to her.

We visit another kafeneio. Another group of old men, dressed in old fashions, worrybeads swinging from fingers, unwavering views thrown out into the air.

“Give me 24 hours,” says one “That’s all I ask. Just 24 hours in a room with the government and I could sort out this whole mess.”

The man has strong, lined face, that has been worked over by the sun and wind of these Peloponnese lands for 60 years or more. He talks of his lack of money, the hopelessness of his circumstances.

“I will survive this though,” he says, standing up from his chair, rising to his full height “I will survive. Because…” he pauses for effect, looks around him to check everyone is listening “I will survive because I am Greek!”

The other old men of the cafe nod their white heads, like bobbing dandelions, in certifying agreement.

Greek village high on the hills-r50

Another younger villager appears down the road, swearing and gesticulating, he runs up to to my mother-in-laws and nose-to-nose starts shouting into her face. He tells her how Tsipras has let the country down.

“He could have been the Chavez of Europe!” he says, swinging his arms round and round.

He continues to rant and rail and I feel genuine fear for my mother-in-laws safety, when it’s translated to me that actually he is offering his support. He will be one of the men in the villages organising future help in the run-up to the election.

So we travel to more villages. More views. More bellicose aggrandising.

The more the men shout how they have NEVER been part of the old corrupt parties, how they have NEVER been PASOK or New Democracy, the more I know they definitely were. Now latching on to the new party of power, in the hope of…what exactly? More rousfeti I guess.

We stop at a taverna. A group of 20 men with, as always, just a small smattering of women are sat outside. As my mother-in-law talks to them, drinks and hospitality are offered again despite the chariness and suspicion that we, particularly I, am viewed with.

I approach an old couple with their head-scarved, ancient, mother. I want to know how many elections they’ve seen in their time, how many candidates have called into this village.

The old woman doesn’t know her age, and the old man is very distrustful. “Sit down,” he tells her “He wants to know things…”

The old woman ignores him though and talks to me a while, and tells me the other traditional parties used to come, years ago, but they don’t now. “They only come and show their faces when they’re symantikoi” she tells me. “When they feel important. Otherwise you never see them. They just hide. Hide with our money.”

One man – a local shepherd – talks of how he is unable to even afford new shoes, placing his decrepit, more hole than shoe, pair on the table.

He works himself up.

“We should get guns!” he shouts. “We should get guns! We should have a revolution! But no, you’re not brave enough…” he spits, slapping at the shoulder of the bemused, slight, bespectacled Syriza helper sat to his right.

He stands up and kicks his chair violently into the street, then leans over and pushes all the drinks on our table to smash down on the floor. It’s a disconcerting moment. Even though he then stands with his arms by his side in a slightly sheepish silence afterwards, as the annoyed large lady owner of the bar comes and flaps him out of the way and sweeps up the shards of glass. But it shocks me and enforces just how high passions are running in this election.

Although, actually the most prevalent concern I hear from most, whether Syriza supporter or not, is “Why, exactly, are we having another election?”

Having had Euro election, a general election, a referendum in the space of less than 18 months, the voters are exhausted of elections. Many express concern that these endless elections – 5 in 6 years – makes Greece look a failed country.Greek election campaigning I

My mother-in-law has a double challenge then. Convince people why they should vote, and then get them to vote her way.

*

“How dare you come here and talk to us?”

We are in the town square of Zacharo – Sugar Town. A town to the south of the constituency with a murky election history.

The mayor of this town, in a bid for votes for his campaign, laid on “love buses” for the menfolk here, taking them over the northern border of the country to enjoy the pleasures of Bulgarian women, so it was reported.

He swept in with an impressive majority.

There are further scandals attached to this town and I’m told how, like mayors all over Greece, the campaigning posters of MPs from rival parties will be pulled down. The mayors of these towns spotted hanging from trees and lampposts in the middle of the night, hacking at his rivals’ banners.

The fight in these villages is not always a fair one.

The citizens of Zacharo are not supportive either.

“How dare you come and try and talk to these people?!” one man shouts from a cafe at the campaign team.

It seems odd that he is so offended at the sitting MP coming to communicate and field questions with the electorate with just over a week to go before the election. But the presence of any politician – if they’re not doing you a favour that is – is not often a popular one in Greece.

A slanging match evolves around the square, with others outside the café all taking sides. And I hear the troubling words Chrysi Avgi – Golden Dawn – praisefully thrown. It is a reminder that the polls have the dangerous far-right party as coming third, and a further warning of what is at stake in these elections.

Golden Dawn have risen in popularity dramatically in the country, particularly since the economic crisis. Campaigning on anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, pro-ultra Hellenic ideals. Many support a return of the military Junta. Many openly identify themselves as Nazis. And many wish to expand Greek territory into Bulgaria and Turkey up to olden day Constantinople.

Two years ago an anti-fascist rapper was murdered by Golden Dawn supporters in a cafe in Athens. Months of violent rioting in the capital and in Thessaloniki followed. The leader of Golden Dawn and several of its MPs were arrested in connection to the murder. All were released.

*

Along the coast as we move out to meet more people in the small fishing ports there is greater support for the Syriza cause. People come to embrace my mother-in-law and express genuine sympathy for Tsipras. “Poor guy. He tried. He really did.”

One moustached shop owner drapes a judicious arm over my mother-in-law and tells her in a considered manner “Tsipras has an honest face. I know when I see his face, he is a trustworthy guy.” He taps his finger towards the sky. “The most trustworthy politician we’ve ever had anyway. I will always vote for a man with a face like that.”

Another races out of his house, only in his underwear, shouting, waving his arms, full of anger.

“Ah, it’s you,” he then stops, backtracks. “I thought it was PASOK or New Democracy. I was hoping for a fight! Ah I’ll be voting for you next Sunday. Don’t worry. I will vote.”

*

Despite the considerable differences I have observed on the campaign out here, my mother-in-law is still roped into the typical antics of the imploring MP that I associate with electioneering back home. Although it’s not kissing babies or largest marrow competitions in Greece.

She is asked to judge a brutal Grecco wrestling competition, held on white-hot sands on a beach near Ancient Olympia, handing out the prizes alongside the Greek Olympic silver medal holder, stood with his carved body poured into his trunks.

I am also employed myself, stuffing envelopes, and spend hours at the Syriza office in town – hardly a hotbed of political intrigue: two old men permanently stationed outside (one usually my father-in-law), smoking and drinking Greek coffees.

They tell people who wander over – like the man I saw come by with his broken down cart and goat – where they can go to vote. Reminding him to vote for Syriza – though, naturally, leftist ethics mean that they won’t tell him which of the Syriza candidates in this seat to vote for. Collectivism, always collectivism.

Seemingly satisfied, the man, his cart and goat wheel off down the dustful streets into the night.

It is not all simple, rural, lassitude in this Peloponnese backwater though.

I follow my mother-in-law on several tv and radio interviews in hi-tech studios. But the attitude still remains resolutely Greek and uncultivated. I listen on the radio as one interview descends into a slanging match with two journalist bellowing accusations at excessive and increasing volume.

It transpires that the radio station had asked for over 1000 euros from my mother-in-law if she wanted to appear on their station. She had refused and so had not appeared since January. The DJs wanted to know exactly what she DID do with her money (if not paying journalists to appear on their shows).

It seems quite incredible to me. And even more startling then was the journalists afterwards taking much longer than the interview itself to self-righteously castigate once she had left, lambasting her over the airwaves in a wounded manner for her asking them to tone down the shouting.

“What? She tells us not to shout at her? She tells us what to do? MPs think they know our job better than us??”

I have a worry that this all might seem unproffesional to listening voters, but at a bar in the main square in Amaliada where I often sit and watch the news on the main national tv channels, I was earlier struck by the regular slot of a multiple split-screen show with politicians, journalists and presenters…

All the guests on this political show would hurl abuse, speak over each other, shout, bang desks, throw papers in the air. No viewer could surely understand a word of what’s going on.

And this is the main news channel.

The lady owner of the bar, idly watching this ridiculous scene played out on the tv, while running a cloth over a glass turned to me with detached reproof, nodded at the screen and with an exasperated sigh said simply “Ellada, eh?” – Greece, eh?Greek election campaigning II

The televised debate of the leaders of the parties goes out late one evening and it is a long, ponderous affair. Lasting over 4 hours and finishing in the early morning.

My mother-in-law appears on a similar tv debate with her rival local candidates on the slightly less grand ‘Olympic’ channel beamed from somewhere out in the Ionian Sea.

It is still a closely watched event though – even as her debate rumbles on past middnight – by a nation of telelvision, as well as political, addicts.

“Politics for us, it’s like the weather for you” so I am told by one fellow campaigner. “It’s all we care about!”

And this is true. I see a man outside a periptero – the old style Greek kiosks on every street that are essential to life in Greece and which sell pretty much everything you can think of – take down a newspaper. He reads through the latest political developments, getting more and more enraged, breathing heavily through his nose. Eventually this old man, unable to contain himself any longer, slings the paper the ground. And then for good measure stamps on it.

Graffiti is on walls all over Greece with a scrawled, simple, “PASOK” or “KKE” on it, like the tribal support of a local football team, or the drawing of a sweetheart’s name.

It impresses me. I can’t imagine anyone bothering wasting the paint to spray a tribute to the Liberal Democrats on a wall back home.

*

I attend a final rally for Tsipras in Patras, a large town just north of my mother-in-law’s constituency. This time I am at the front, with the MPs, not back in the crowd with the hoi-polloi.

Tsipras is greeted loudly. He walks the crowds and for some reason I get carried away with the heady atmosphere here and as he passes me I stand up to give him a handshake that turns into a bear hug.

It seems bizarre to me that there are only one or two police to guard the country’s Prime Minister, and later after his long address I am able to amble over to where he delivered his speech to find his notes and papers absent-mindedly left behind. One old man is in charge of packing up the whole stage. He sits on a cog of winded-up leads, rubbing his head sadly looking at this task, a cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth.

For a country that is at the centre of the world’s interest and for a party that might hold the very fate of the European Dream in their hands, this election and the campaign for my mother-in-law that I have followed has seemed very simple, very open. Perhaps a little amateurish, but all the less cynical for it.

I have admired that the Greeks I met all hold their views to be true; their distrust of politicians; their belief that – if only they were given the chance – they could personally fix all the country’s problems. And their held certainty of their complete, incontestable, suitability to be prime minister.

My mother-in-law has found the reaction from the people tough, although expected. I have found the willingness to engage with the electorate inspiriting, despite the electorate’s enmity and routine bad temper.

It may seem safer on the knocker in Tonbridge Wells or hiding behind leaflet drops and telephone canvasing from a party HQ in the UK, but duller and far less engaged with the real spirit of politics.

Democracy was born here, of course. And perhaps exists still in its purest form.

*

So we gather in Amaliada Square to await the outcome, as we did in January.

We move to a restaurant, waiting for the results. The place is bustling with anticipation and excitement.

I gaze around, taking in the figures arguing with great passion, hands waving in faces – although the discussions could be ranging from the future of the country to whether they should have calamari for a starter, they all seem conducted at the same volume and intensity – I notice a few of the customers smoking. Surely this is a non-smoking restaurant? Didn’t I see a sign…

I turn to see my mother-in-law, the incumbent MP for the town, the standard bearer and rule-setter for the people, contentedly puffing away directly under the large ‘Strictly No Smoking Allowed’ sign.

The owner happily brings her over one of their ashtrays.

I wonder if Greece will ever change…

Though at least in this election, unlike last time, my wife hasn’t been apprehended by one of the officials at the count and told that, due to lack of numbers she must join the counting of the vote (“Well, you have a degree don’t you? You can’t be stupid. You can count…”)

My wife had actually spent time, back in her student days, on the streets protesting and disrupting with the Athens and Thessaloniki anarchists – anarchist groups, disruption, organised disobedience are of course another big faction of Greek politics. Although her anarchist group was always more bookish theorists than Baader-Meinhof terrorists.

But still, I watched the daughter of one of the prospective candidates for the ward – who had previously run with the anti-democracy crowd – with no training or supervision, assiduously and purposefully counting votes for her mother and the other candidates on an old table in a broken down school hall.

It didn’t seem quite right to me.

But I guess, as the lady of the old bar in Amaliada square rightly had it: Greece, eh?

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