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.

But this was currently the position I found myself in.

I had moved to Greece at a time of great political upheaval. And my mother-in-law was 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, had 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 – was 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 wouldn’t be easy.

IMG_20150923_142932

Back when she was just a simple potter as her profession my mother-in-law 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/ Finally, years later, this all led to her standing for parliament in this seat – a mix of urban areas and some of the largest farmlands in the country, which had been badly affected by the Greek crisis but, as a whole, were 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, had seen Greek politics become a much larger and far more climatic undertaking.

*

I had just arrived in the county.

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

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

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

There was a large crowd. It flowed 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 seemed a real throwback to a very different age.

The crowds came in a receptive mood. There didn’t seem to be heckling or trouble-makers. Many took the opportunity instead to conduct debates amongst themselves, and more still had brought elaborate picnics and ouzo and treated the occasion as a great chance to socialise.

Politics being the social glue of the country.

Tsipras talked for an hour. Some in the crowd told me he was looking tired already, this early into the campaign. The crowd were appreciative, but one man  – a man who had been applauding loudly next to me all evening – told me “Yes he was impressive today,” he flicked an olive into his mouth, rolled it round with his tongue, thought 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 jutted out his arm, offered me an olive. Spat a stone high in the hot late Athens air

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

*

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

I was 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 arrived at a small, old village and took root in a characterful old 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 was insisted that everyone in our visiting campaign team, who have descended unasked on these villagers, took 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 had gathered here.

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

As the sound of Tsipras addressing the nation on an unwatched tv floated down from an open window above, my mother-in-law talked to the villagers and, surprisingly to me, concentrated 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 vanished as the evening opened 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. Nothing! Why do you even pretend?”

The mood appeared angry. Everything is said at high volume, with overly aggressive exclamations and ugly body language, or so it seemed to my fey British senses anyway.

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

“Well that’s before Syriza then, isn’t it? Why do you even talk? Malaka!” He threw 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 appeared 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 had dissolved back into the old self-serving concerns.

Whether I was right or not, I noted the arguments all centred resolutely on Europe and the measures and the memorandums, and any social or local issues failed to get any air time in these old cafes whatsoever. It seemed a campaign forced into a very narrow, but massively heated, area.

The loudest opposing voice appeared to be coming from a man I remembered well from last January, when I flew from England to visit my mother-in-law on the day of her victory. The man had bought me raki after raki, 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 appeared, was a very long time in Greek politics.

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

My mother-in-law replied, 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 had squatted on Greece for over 40 years.

The country was these parties. These parties were the country.

Since the fall of the dictator the country had 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 had become Syriza and Tsipras’ mantra in this election.

And Greek elections are especially renowned for their malfeasance.

Votes are often 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 had been long in the blood of many Greeks, and it seemed almost impossible to change.

I learned it to be true myself when I was sent to the corner mini-market, the bakaliko, to buy cigarettes – essential for 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 said to me. “That reminds me…”

Before I’d reached home again the owner had phoned my mother-in-law to ask for a job for her son. Hinting that the New Democracy rival had already offered her something. “Tha meh volepseis…?” she said 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 had as their rallying cry – done with the old.

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

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

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

It seemed 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 watched a KKE rally on tv and was struck by the crowds chanting out their slogans in unison in hard, unsubtle, indoctrinated fashion. And I was 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 –  seemed a little ridiculous to me now, in today’s world.

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

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

But if Syriza believed they were the pragmatic Left, the snapshot of feeling here in this typical Peloponnese village where we had started the campaign was anything to go by, they had their work cut out to convince the people of it this time round.

Quite ridiculously, in this small village, there was 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 moved between each one to chat to the patrons, sitting and – despite the heated, shouted, conversations – sharing ashtrays with them, the debates continued in the kafeneia she’d 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 were heated and pugnacious despite all seemingly agreeing with each other. I didn’t hear anyone putting forward the Syriza point of view.

And yet, despite all this, as we left the campaign team felt it went well and are confident that most here would 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, were piled into a small car – the car sagging down deep on its springs – and we were to tour a selection of tiny villages, again high in the remote hills.

“This is a good village for us,” someone said in the back. “Last time we took 5 votes here…”

We stopped at a grocery, but the shop owner didn’t want to talk. His daughter had, that very day, emigrated to Australia. He seemed very down and, unusually for a Greek, he told us, as if confessing an illness “I don’t feel like talking politics today…”

Expressing the key Greek feeling that my mother-in-law had to address, he added “Nothing will ever change. It’s the system. The system is broken…” He said this to my mother-in-law, patting her arm, with a sad, knowing air. As if everyone knows she was 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 visited another kafeneio. Another group of old men, dressed in old fashions, worrybeads swinging from their fingers, unwavering views thrown out into the air.

“Give me 24 hours,” said 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 had a strong, lined face that had been worked over by the sun and wind of these Peloponnese lands for 60 years or more. He talked of his lack of money, the hopelessness of his circumstances.

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

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

Greek village high on the hills-r50

Another younger villager appeared down the road, swearing and gesticulating, he ran up to to my mother-in-law and nose-to-nose started shouting into her face. He screamed her how Tsipras has let the country down.

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

He continued to rant and rail and I felt genuine fear for my mother-in-laws safety, when it was translated to me that actually he was offering his support. He would be one of the men in the villages organising future help in the run-up to the election.

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

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

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

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

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

The old woman ignored him though and talked to me a while, in my haltering understanding of Greek she told me that 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 said. “When they feel important. Otherwise you never see them. They just hide. Hide with our money.”

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

He worked himself up.

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

He stood up and kicked his chair violently into the street, then lent over and pushed all the drinks on our table to smash down on the floor.

It was a disconcerting moment. Even though he then stood 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 swept up the shards of glass. But it shocked me and it enforced just how high passions were running in this election.

Although, actually the most prevalent concern I heard from most, whether Syriza supporter or not, was “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 were exhausted of elections. Many expressed concern that these endless elections – 5 in 6 years – made Greece look a failed country.Greek election campaigning I

My mother-in-law had 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 were 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, had 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 were further scandals attached to this town and I’m told how, like mayors all over Greece, the campaigning posters of MPs from rival parties would be pulled down. The mayors of these towns spotted hanging from trees and lampposts in the middle of the night, hacking at their rivals’ banners.

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

The citizens of Zacharo were not supportive either.

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

It seemed odd that he was 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 evolved around the square, with others outside the café all taking sides. And I heard the troubling words Chrysi Avgi – Golden Dawn – praisefully thrown. It was a reminder that the polls have the dangerous far-right party as coming third, and a further warning of what was at stake in these elections.

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

Two years earlier 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 moved out to meet more people in the small fishing ports there was greater support for the Syriza cause. People came to embrace my mother-in-law and expressed genuine sympathy for Tsipras.

“Poor guy. He tried. He really did. What can you do up against Europe? What can you do up against Madam Merkel?”

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

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

“Ah, it’s you,” he stopped suddenly, 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 had observed on the campaign out here, my mother-in-law was still roped into the typical antics of the imploring MP that I associated with electioneering back home. Although it’s not kissing babies or largest marrow competitions in Greece.

She was 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 next to her with his carved body poured into his trunks.

I was also employed myself, stuffing envelopes, and spent hours at the Syriza office in Amalida 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 told people who wandered over – like the man I saw come by with his broken down cart and goat – where they could go to vote. Reminding him to vote for Syriza – though, naturally, leftist ethics mean that they wouldn’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 out into the night.

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

I followed my mother-in-law on several tv and radio interviews in hi-tech studios. But the attitude still remained resolutely Greek and uncultivated. I listened on the radio as one interview descended into a slanging match with two journalist bellowing accusations at an excessive, and rising, volume.

It transpired 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 seemed quite incredible to me. And even more startling 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 had a worry that this all might seem unprofessional to listening voters, but at a bar in the main square in Amaliada where I often sat and watched the news on the main national tv channels, I’d been earlier struck by one of the most popular current affairs programme that always seemed to be on. A multiple split-screen show with politicians, journalists and presenters.

All the guests on the political show hurled abuse, spoke over each other, shouted, banged desks, threw papers in the air. No viewer could understand a word of what was going on. And this was Greece’s main source for tv news and debate.

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 went out late one evening and it was a long, ponderous affair. Lasting over 4 hours and finishing in the early morning.

My mother-in-law appeared 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 was still a closely watched event though – even as her debate rumbled 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 was told by one fellow campaigner. “It’s all we care about…”

And this seems very true.

I saw 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 could ever think of. He took down a newspaper. Read through the latest political developments, getting more and more enraged, breathing heavily through his nose. Eventually the old man, unable to contain himself any longer, slung the paper to the ground. And, after looking down at the paper thinking about it a while, for good measure he stamped 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 impressed me. I couldn’t imagine anyone bothering to waste the paint to spray a tribute to the Liberal Democrats on a wall back home.

*

I attended a final rally for Tsipras in Patras, the large sea-city just north of my mother-in-law’s constituency. This time I was at the front, with the MPs, not back in the crowd with the hoi-polloi. I felt absurdly important. It all went to my head.

Tsipras was greeted loudly. He walked through the crowd, high-fiving. For some reason – the heady atmosphere got to me – I got carried away and as he passed I stood up to give him a handshake, refusing to then let go. Even as he walked along greeting other members of the public and as he shook and wriggled, smiling through gritted teeth, to try and make me let go.

It seemed strange to me that there were only one or two police to guard the country’s Prime Minister. They watched me bothering Tsipras, unimpressed.  Later after his long address I was able to amble over to where he had delivered his speech and find his notes and papers absent-mindedly left behind. One old man was in charge of packing up the whole stage. He sat on a cog of wound-up leads, rubbing his head sadly looking at the task in front of him, a cigarette burning low in the corner of his mouth.

For a country that was 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 had followed had seemed very simple, very open. Perhaps a little amateurish, but all the less cynical for it.

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

My mother-in-law had found the reaction from the people tough, although expected. I had 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 gathered in Amaliada Square to await the outcome, as we had done in January.

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

I gazed 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 as to whether they should have calamari for a starter, they all seem conducted at the same volume and intensity. I noticed a few of the customers smoking. Surely this was a non-smoking restaurant? Didn’t I see a sign…

I turned 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 carried over one of their ashtrays for her.

I wondered if Greece will ever change…

Though at least in this election, unlike last time, my wife hadn’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, disruptions, 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, as the lady of the old bar in Amaliada square rightly had it: Greece, eh?

DSC_0378