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.

Maybe there were, I don’t know.

Anyway, nevertheless, this is currently the position I find myself in.

I have moved to my wife’s home country of Greece at a time of great upheaval and interest. The far-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 Alexis Tsipras’ forced resignation.

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

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My mother-in-law – my pethera – is seeking re-election for Syriza in the seat of Ilia in the Peloponnese area of Greece, 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 this year.

Previously an artist and teacher of pottery, my mother-in-law had fought against the Greek dictatorship in 1974 which led to her later becoming an active trade unionist and local campaigner.

She was inspired to stand for parliament in this seat – a mix of urban areas and some of the largest farmlands in the country, with 220 villages and a population of around 160,000, who have been badly affected by the Greek crisis but, as a whole, are not in as deep poverty as experienced elsewhere in the country – as she wanted to “raise the local issues and contribute to the solutions”.

But 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.

Like the rest of Europe, the world even, I will be gripped by this election. I am also interested, however, in how this Greek election campaign will differ from those I am used to back home.

My step-father was a local politician in London and I was knocking on doors and posting leaflets from a young age.

I campaigned for the Labour candidate, Alf Dubbs, in the incredibly tight general election contest in Battersea in 1992 and also for a doomed friend standing for the Liberal Democrats in a South Wales Labour stronghold.

However, I have a feeling that not much of what I have been used to will be familiar in this election.

Before hitting the campaign trail in my mother-in-law’s constituency, I attend a rally for Tsipras in a large square in the Egaleo district of Athens.

It is a completely different event to the stage managed get-togethers at the last election in the UK, where Cameron or Miliband would talk in front of a small crowd of hand-picked, heavily vetted employees in the corner of some factory, using tv camera chicanery to make the crowds appear larger and more engaged than they were. Here there are large numbers and much placard waving and cheering, though not, I note, the vast, rapturous numbers I saw back in January.

But the peculiar fact is that it happens at all. In this world of multi media coverage, the politician making open-air, rallying speeches in front of a stimulated, mobilised mass seems a throwback to a very different age.

The crowds come in appreciative mood, without heckling or trouble-makers, but 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.

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 tells me – a man who has been applauding loudly next to me all evening –

“He was impressive today. He is impressive every day. I voted for him before, but will I vote for him this time? I’m not sure. I’m still thinking…”

A smooth ride for Syriza, as Tsipras must have hoped when he called the election, perhaps not seeming 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, 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 to 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 favouring feeling of January may still endure 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. The Troika decides everything.”

The mood appears angry. All points are made at top volume and with overly aggressive exclamations, or so it seems to my 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!”

It appears to me there’s an indication here that Syriza’s historic victory at the beginning of 2015 wasn’t a rising of the concerned voice for the underprivileged, those struggling at the bottom, but a vote just to get rid of the European organised austerity which affected them and, now that fight has been frustrated, has now 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 January, who bought me tsipouro after tsipouro, slapping then hugging me vigorously in the main square in Amaliada on the night of the election result, 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 that many in Greece are cheats, that the country cheats and wheedles its way to fraudulent benefits. 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? Ok. Well, if you are, which is the party to do it? The old parties of corruption? Or Syriza?”

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

Greek politics, particularly elections, are renown for bribery and 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 their rival will offer.

It has been long in the Greek blood and it is hard for Syriza to change this.

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

“Ah so you’re Efi’s gabros” the owner of the shop says to me. “That reminds me…” And 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 something.

Ksemperdevoume me to palio” – done with the old.

It is printed on all the Syriza leaflets and campaigning materials. Tsipras’ main message this time round is to focus on the corruption that caused such problems in Greece to begin with, rather than proposals to fight the European austerity measures brought by these problems, as last time.

Though, in the usual Greek dilatory way, the latest manifestos haven’t been printed or delivered yet, so there is nothing to hand out on the campaign trail. Even when they are ready, there are no pictures of Tsipras, no winning images. This is the Left: collectivism, no individuals, no gimmicks.

It seems bizarre to be following this political campaign, of a party of ex-Trotskyists 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, comrades dressed in identical 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 later on tv and am struck by the crowds chanting out slogans in unison in an almost brainwashed fashion, and am plagued daily by KKE vans touring the local streets relaying strident messages through loud speakers with snatches of Soviet style music.

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

With the communists immuting mission to seemingly oppose anything that is put forward by any party, it is not so surprising why Tsipras’ synaspismos party was able to appeal.

Syriza may believe they are the pragmatic Left, but 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 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 each for those with right wing or left wing views.

As my mother-in-law moves between each one to chat to the patrons, sitting and – despite the heated conversations – sharing ashtrays with them, the debates continue in the kafeneia she’s 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, centre-left party) Potami? They haven’t had the chance to lie 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 this, the campaign team are confident that most here will vote Syriza in two weeks’ time.

*

Another 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 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 change. The system is broken.”

Another kafeneio, another group of old men, dressed in old fashions, worrybeads swinging from fingers, unwavering views.

“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.”

He talks of his lack of money, the hopelessness of his circumstances “I will survive this though” he says, rising to his full height “I will survive. Because… I am Greek.”

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Another villager, swearing and gesticulating, almost shrieking into my mother-in-laws face tells her how Tsipras has let the country down “He could have been the Chavez of Europe!”
He continues to rant and rail and I begin to feel genuine fear for her 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.

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, PASOK and New Democracy, the more I get the feeling they definitely were. Now latching on to the new party of power, in the hope of…what exactly?

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 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 tells me the other traditional parties used to come, years ago, but don’t now. “They only come when they’re symantikoi” she tells me – when they’re important.

I wrestle with what she means by this. Important as in when they win? Well, if my mother-in-law, as the sitting MP, is important, she still has much convincing to do here.

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! We should have a revolution! But no, you’re not brave enough!” he spits at the bemused, slight, bespectacled Syriza helper sat to his right.

He stands and kicks his chair violently into the street, smashing the drinks. It shocks me but enforces just how high passions are running in this election.

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

Having had Euro election, a general election, a referendum in the space of less than 18 months, the voters seem perplexed why Tsipras is turning to the electorate again. The electorate appear exhausted of elections.

And many believe that Tsipras doesn’t even want to win this election, the measures he has agreed to and will be made to push through by Europe thought likely to ruin his career. Or Syriza’s. Much better for Tsipras if another party is in charge when these measures have to be implemented, the mischievous mistrustful thinking goes. Greek election campaigning I

Others express concern that these endless elections – 5 in 6 years – makes Greece look a failed country.

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

*

“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, laid on “love buses” for the menfolk, taking them over the border to enjoy the pleasures of Bulgarian women. 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 fight in these villages not always a fair one.

The citizens of Zacharo aren’t exactly 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.

The slanging match that then evolves around the square seems equally bizarre.

In the bitter clash, with others outside the café taking sides, I hear the troubling words Chrysi Avgi – Golden Dawn – praisefully thrown, and it is a reminder that the polls have the dangerously far-right party as coming third and a further warning of what is at stake in these elections.

Along the coast, though, there is more 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 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. The most trustworthy politician we’ve ever had anyway.”

Another races out of his house, only in his underwear, his face full of commotion.

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

*

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.

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 Syriza – though, naturally, leftist ethics mean that they won’t tell him which of the Syriza candidates in this seat to vote for.

Always collectivism.

(Aside from those Syriza rebel MPs who have first brought about this election of course…)

It is not all simple, rural, lassitude 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 not-exactly cultivated.

I listen on the radio as one interview descends into a slanging match with two journalist bellowing accusations at top volume, and my mother-in-law matching with her responses.

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 incredible, and even more startling was the journalists afterwards taking much longer than the interview itself to self-righteously castigate 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 watch the news on the main national channels, I was earlier struck by the regular slot of a multiple split-screen show with politicians, journalists and presenters hurling abuse, speaking over each other, shouting and banging desks, so no one can understand a word of what’s going on.

The lady owner of the bar, idly watching this ridiculous scene played out on tv, while running a cloth over a glass turns to me with detached reproof, nods at the screen. “Ellada, eh?” – Greece, eh?Greek election campaigning II

The televised debate of the leaders of the parties goes out 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 candidates on the slightly less grand ‘Olympic’ channel beamed from somewhere in the Ionian.

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

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

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

It impresses me. I can’t imagine anyone bothering wasting the paint to spray a tribute “Liberal Democrats” or something similar back home.

*

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

Tsipras is greeted with rock-star fervour and I get a handshake and a hug with him in the crowd. But there are only one or two police to guard the country’s – until recently – Prime Minister and I am able to amble over to where he delivered his speech later to find his notes and papers absent-mindedly left behind.

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 I have followed has seemed very simple, very open. Perhaps amateurish, but all the less cynical for it.

What will happen on the 20th September still seems anyone’s guess. The polls have both Syriza or New Democracy winning, by slim margins. The feeling in my mother-in-laws camp is that Syriza will do a lot better than that, but a coalition of some sort still seems the only clear outcome.

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 will gather in Amaliada Square to await the outcome as we did in January, and like January there will be no great celebrations whatever the outcome for my mother-in-law. Maybe just a dinner for those who helped. This is the leftist way.

But I wonder if, like last time, my wife will be 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.”)

My wife had actually spent time, back in her student days, on the streets protesting and disrupting with the Athens and Thessaloniki anarchists – anarchy and anarchist groups 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.

As the lady of the old bar in Amaliada square rightly had it: Greece, eh?

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