16/07/2007 - D-7
The electoral campaign for the general elections on 16th September in Greece was greatly disrupted by the terrible fires that devastated a part of the south of the country at the end of August causing the death of 65 people in all. According to several estimates 200,000 hectares of forest and field, mainly olive trees went up in smoke and 110 villages were destroyed.
Costas Caramanlis's government (New Democracy, ND) has been the subject of severe criticism with regard to its management of the fires: disorganisation, major errors in organising the fire fighting, emergency aid and the accommodation of the victims. The country was also outraged because some villagers surrounded by flames were only saved after appeals were made on the radio and television enabling the emergency services to locate them whereas the public authorities could not be found. Around 10,000 people gathered before Parliament in Syntagma Square, Athens and in neighbouring streets on 29th August to show how upset they were with the government. The demonstration was apolitical and was organised via the Internet. Most of those taking part were dressed in black as a sign of mourning. Around 1,000 people also demonstrated in the country's second biggest town Thessaloniki. On 4th September, 12 days after the disaster, the Social Greek Forum and the Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) rallied several thousand people in the streets of Athens in demonstration against the government's management of the fires.
"It is an unprecedented national tragedy," declared Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis in his first public speech whilst the disaster was ongoing, adding, "I am just as angry as you." On 27th August the Head of Government decreed three days of national mourning. "At times like this the Greeks must stay together. Events over the last few days strengthen my belief in the need for reforms to create a more modern, more efficient and more credible State," he said on 24th August. But Costas Caramanlis also suggested that the fires, far from being a natural disaster might have been the work of pyromaniacs who wanted to damage Greece. "I cannot believe that the fires, due to their number and timing were coincidences," he stressed. Public Order Minister, Vyron Polydoras even spoke of an "asymmetrical threat", a term usually employed with regard to terrorism. A lax environmental policy together with land consolidation undertaken without regard to the environment along with a disorganised emergency service seem however to have been the main culprits in the disaster suffered by Greece this summer.
The government promised to release 400 million euro for the reconstruction and reforestation of the affected areas; some experts, who estimate the damage at 4 billion euro deem this sum inadequate. On 5th September, the government announced that over 62 million euro had been placed in a Special Aid Fund for the victims. 45,600 victims have received initial compensation to a total of 165 million euro. In addition to this, the European Union will provide 600 million euro to Greece.
The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), the main opposition force along with all the other political parties, decried the lack of response on the part of the government during the fires. "Unfortunately the government was ineffective. It was tragically incapable of saving the lives of our fellow citizens. It continues to act in an irresponsible manner. The result being that the Greeks have been made fun of across the world," said PASOK leader George Papandreou. The PASOK decided to give 30% of its electoral campaign budget to the victims.
The lead held by New Democracy in the polls decreased after the fires. According to the polls more than one Greek in three thinks that the government managed the crisis badly. A poll undertaken by VPRC, published at the end of August in the daily Kathimerini and on Skai TV, shows that New Democracy is supported by 41.5% of Greeks versus 38% who say they are going to vote for PASOK. The proportion of those who have not yet taken a decision has also increased rising from 19% in a previous poll by the same institute to 27%. Costas Caramanlis must have been somewhat comforted to see that 55% of those interviewed believe that a government led by PASOK would have had the same problems if it had had to face the fires.
"PASOK has improved its chances of victory but the question is whether the discontent with regard to Caramanlis will turn into votes for the socialists or a greater number of abstentions," asks political analyst George Sefertzis. "The gap between the two main parties has grown but if financial aid comes quickly voters might change their opinion and again turn to the conservatives who are also considered with greater confidence. In fact if the undecided look at the way the government managed the fires it will be bad for it, however if they consider the way the government assumes responsibility for the victims that might play in its favour," maintains Theodore Coloumbis, deputy Chairman of the think-tank Eliamep.
Costas Caramanlis continues to promote his socio-economic results after spending three and a half years as head of government. "We are now in the middle of a difficult period and much remains to be done. There is only one route – that of work and results, that of change and reform," declared the Prime Minister who pointed out that the results achieved by his government since March 2004 had all been acknowledged by international organisations and his partners in the European Union. At the beginning of September he announced the four main poles of reform that he wanted to set up: economic growth and the adaptation of public finances, the State, education and finally social security and retirement pensions. "I think that given the healthy state of public finances and the excellent outlook for the Greek economy we can carry on with the necessary changes without having to raise the retirement age nor reduce pensions," declared Costas Caramanlis.
The Prime Minister also announced the establishment of a National Social Cohesion Fund, the granting of benefits to large families with at least three children as from 2008, an increase in unemployment benefit, social solidarity benefit for the retired and pensions for farmers. The Head of Government has set the target to bring his country up to the EU average in terms of salaries and pensions within five to seven years. 20% of Greek households live below the poverty line (less than 11,864 euro annually) which makes Greece one of the poorest countries in the EU.
Costas Caramanlis did not hesitate in saying "the enormous budgetary deficit made it impossible for us to support those who were the poorest economically in the way we would have liked to. This is our self-criticism and we admit that not everything is perfect and that some areas of the public sector do not correspond with the principles of the new way of governance. However we are determined to achieve new impetus, achieve greater speed and new pace. We have experience and the knowledge required for the present time. We are proud of what we have done and we shall continue the reforms which the country needs."
"Costas Caramanlis speaks of the social security system as he did in 2004 and as if New Democracy has not governed the country for the last three and a half years," answers PASOK spokesperson Yiannis Ragoussis. The main opposition party's leader, George Papandreou, stresses that the head of government had made "the same old dusty declarations that date back to 2004" and that the "Prime Minister had not decided to convene early general elections but that his policy had failed and that his government had failed." If it wins the PASOK is promising an increase in retirement pensions for the poorest and also for those with average income and farmers. "In 27 days Greece will turn over a new leaf and after the elections the new government led by PASOK will start work and put right the injustice and inequalities in income. I shall keep my promises and not hide in the Maximos Palace (the Greek Prime Minister's residence,)" maintains George Papandreou who says he is confident of his party's victory on 16th September.
By convening early elections, the opposition suspects the government of wanting to prevent the report written by the head of the authority in the fight against money laundering, George Zorbas, being presented to the parliamentary commission and the use of this in the opposition's electoral campaign. The PASOK has asked for the report's conclusions to be published but it has little chance of seeing its request fulfilled by the government. "These early elections are an attempt to hide the problems engendered by the Zorbas report over the affair in which bonds were bought by the social security and the planned plunder of millions of euros by Costas Caramanlis's ministers," repeats George Papandreou. In the daily Kathimerini on 2nd September Theodoros Roussopoulos, the government spokesperson who has withdrawn from his function because he is running in the elections denied all of these accusations. "The Zorbas Report is in the hands of the justice not those of the government. We have nothing to fear," he maintained.
As for the "small" parties, the Communist Party led by Aleka Papariga, who will be running in the 1st and 2nd constituencies of Athens (the electoral law allows political party leaders to stand in two different constituencies), is campaigning according to the slogan "New Democracy and the Socialist Panhellenic Movement will not change, it is you who have to change!" The party is trying to address "the youth of the popular classes, young workers and couples, those who are voting for the first time." It also maintains that it is fighting for "the rights of the new generations, the right to have a family, the right to study, to have access to healthcare, to security, the environment – the right to have the right to all rights." "The issue at stake comprises punishment for New Democracy and the PASOK whose reforms serve capital only and which are to the detriment of the people," indicates a Communist Party press release.
Alecos Alavanos, the leader of the coalition of the leftwing and progress (Synaspismos), decided to stand for Syriza (the new name for the radical left coalition rallying Synaspismos and several other groups that lie to the left of PASOK – but which did not succeed in attracting the ecologists) in Serres, the home town of the Caramanlis family as well as in Irakleio. "The main battle will take place on 16th September next between New Democracy and Synaspismos," says Alecos Alavanos unhesitatingly. The far left will also have to compete against Enantia (Anti Capitalist Unitarian Left), a new party that has recently been created. Finally the leader of Popular Orthodox Alarm (Laos), George Karatzaferis maintains that five parties will enter Parliament on 16th September and no party would be able to form a government alone. The far right movement says it is ready to work with a "government of personalities and not a government of families."
9, 824, 223 people are being called to the urns on 16th September next including 429 385 first time voters. 29 political parties are standing in the election. The inhabitants of the small island of Lipsi in the Aegean Sea have decided to boycott the election in protest against the lack of maritime links with their island. Finally we should note the measures taken by the Transport Minister who decided to grant a 30% price reduction on bus journeys to all voters who chose to travel to their polling stations by this means of transport three days before and after the election. Voting by proxy does not exist in Greece. Although there is a law allowing voters to vote for their home constituency in special polling stations near where they live few people really take advantage of this (41,000 during the last elections on 7th March 2004). Most Greeks, including those living abroad, travel home to fulfil their civic duty.
Electoral expenditures have risen this year by 20% in comparison with the previous elections in 2004. New Democracy received 3 million euro from the State, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, 2.7 million, the Communist Party 393,000, Synaspismos 217,000, and Popular Orthodox Alarm, (which is not represented in Parliament but which has one MEP), 146,000.
"The improvement in the economy is one advantage held by the conservatives and it is highly unlikely that the Greeks will vote against this. "Is Costas Caramanlis able to deal with difficult problem, (reform of the retirement system, reduction of public spending, privatisations) that he swept under the carpet during his first term in office?" asks George Kirtsos, political analyst and editor for the daily City Press.
A poll published 24th August last said that 62.1% of the Greeks thought that New Democracy would win the elections versus 28.4% who thought it would be the Panhellenic Socialist Movement. What will the effects of the terrible fires of the end of August have on the election which seemed to be turning in favour of the ruling party? The answer to this will emerge on 16th September.