Papandreou death leaves poll vacuum

Greek elections: Campaign lacks passions of the past
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The Independent Online
It is election season in Greece, but something seems strangely out of place.

In the past, campaigns featured larger-than-life political leaders setting crowds alight at mass rallies, hurling grotesque insults at each other, setting gangs of young supporters at the throats of their rivals, promoting their mistresses, brothers and cousins as the rising stars of Greek democracy, and making outlandish promises of money and jobs to key sections of the electorate.

Not this time. The last of the demagogues, Andreas Papandreou, died in June, leaving a once-combative Greece uncharacteristically humble about its place on the bottom rung of the European Union; even the country's traditional hostility towards Turkey and its neighbours in the Balkans has been supplanted by a desire to create greater stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

With the election looming this Sunday, you have to look hard on the streets to find evidence of any campaigning at all. Modern Greek politics have never been this quiet.

"We are moving from a leader-centred system to a more institution-centred one. The transition is important, as it is a sign of our democratic maturity," observed the outgoing Education Minister, George Papandreou, himself a far more conciliatory personality than his father, Andreas.

"Things are no longer as black and white as they were during the Cold War, when Greece was isolated from its neighbours. Now we need to redefine our role."

Both the Prime Minister, the Socialist Costas Simitis, and his conservative rival, Miltiades Evert, broadly accept the need to bring Greece's chaotic public finances into line with the Maastricht criteria, and both have been careful not to make rabble-rousing anti-Turkish remarks from which they would have to row back as soon as they get into office.

That has made for a bland election campaign in which the two main parties, the Socialist Pasok and the conservative New Democracy, have both lost ground to a clutch of smaller protest groups on both right and left.

Instead of mass rallies, Greeks have been treated to their first ever pre-election television debate, a stilted affair in which the two party leaders were given no opportunity to spar with each other but merely gave answers to prepared questions from journalists.

Mr Simitis, who called the election a year early to bolster his authority within his party before he embarks on a tough austerity budget for 1997, is selling himself as "Mr Serious", spurning the temptation of pre- election handouts and refusing to paint a rosy picture of what is essentially a grim economic outlook.

He entered the election the clear favourite but his colourlessness has given his opponent the chance to run up from behind and come within sniffing distance of victory.

The two parties are now level, each with about 30 per cent of the vote. Mr Evert has run a far more lively, unashamedly populist campaign, promising bigger pensions here and tax cuts there - promises he almost certainly will not be able to keep, but which recall the more colourful political campaigns of the past.

Whoever wins will make himself felt more through style than substance. Mr Simitis is considered a man with a solid international reputation,and a low-key, professorial manner.

For years he found it hard to translate his ideas into action because of the looming presence of Mr Papandreou and now because of the continuing pressure of Mr Papandreou's political heirs within Pasok.

"He talks a good game but he never does anything. This is not what Greeks expect from a leader," said Peter Doukas, a former minister and economic adviser to New Democracy.

Mr Evert has a more hands-on image - his nickname when he was Mayor of Athens was "The Bulldozer" - but he lacks Mr Simitis's authority.

Until this election campaign he was considered something of a laughing stock, even in his own party - a man who "only ever opens his mouth to change feet".

His rhetoric speaks of rapidly liberalising the economy while pursuing a more nationalist foreign policy; the feeling among political scientists and foreign diplomats, though, is that he would do neither - the former because Greece has too many entrenched economic interests and the latter because the region is too volatile already.

Both leaders ultimately have more to fear from their own parties than from each other.

Mr Papandreou's death has left Pasok confused and divided; it was the main catalyst that prompted this election in the first place.

Mr Evert, meanwhile, has never looked more than a temporary leader of New Democracy, and the man he replaced after the last elections, the more authoritative Costas Mitsotakis, has been working surreptitiously in the background to undermine him.

Greece will need strong leadership in the next few years to shed its Balkan image, build strong ties with its neighbours, modernise its economy and catch up with the rest of the European Union.

But strong leadership is something neither Mr Simitis nor Mr Evert seems likely to provide.

Demagoguery may be out of fashion, but the sheer political authority of a Papandreou or a Karamanlis is something that the country may yet come to miss.

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