The Battle of Athens is about to start

The Battle of Athens is about to start

Istanbulites are soon to be told who their next mayor will be, while Athenians are just entering a period of political debate about whom they will choose as their own.

We all know that in theory, local elections are really about “roads, water and rubbish collection.” But we also know that in practice, many who are interested in politics start their career from the local authority contest. 

The coming local elections in Greece, set for May 26, are seen as a crucial test for the government and an opportunity for the main opposition. They will be an opportunity for the conservative party of New Democracy to increase its power base — already they are well ahead in opinion polls, and can be a step before perhaps an electoral victory. One the other hand, it will be a crucial test for the leftist government of Syriza if it manages to sustain its hold and convince its former voters, most of them undecided, to vote for them again.

On the same date, the Greek electorate will be called to make a second choice: On whom to send to the European Parliament. In theory, they should choose who will carry best the national voice to the decision centers of the EU, but in practice, most Greek voters will vote for their favorite party in the Greek parliament.

The election campaign for the Athens Municipality is traditionally a highly-contested political post. Although, a mayor is voted by no more than around 700,000 people it has been proven to be a good career move for aspiring politicians, a step before entering mainstream politics. Some succeed, like Dora Bakoyannis who from mayor of Athens went on to hold several ministerial portfolios; some fail and abandon the fight.

For this mayoral contest, Athenians will have to choose among several candidates, including one from the extreme right party of Golden Dawn. Four of them, one leftist, one socialist, one communist and one liberal-conservative all being chosen by their parties, appeared in a TV debate this week where we were able follow their different approaches.

First, all of them promised that they would complete their term without leaving the job to entering parliamentary politics. This promise has been proven hard to keep in the past for Athens mayors who, at some stage, chose the Greek parliament or even a high post in Brussels leaving the inhabitants of Athens disappointed.

The discussion covered the sticky subject of the financial affairs of Athens Municipality which has in the past been accused of serious corruption and misplaced funds.

Pavlos Geroulanos, a former culture minister under George Papandreou’s government between 2009 and 2011, suggested that whoever is elected as mayor of Athens, should not include in their team people accused of corruption under previous administrations. The hint was directed at the son of Mrs. Dora Bakoyannis, Kostas, whose team includes specific controversial figures. Bakoyannis, a son of a prominent minister and a grandson of a prime minister, is seen as a typical case of a hereditary politics. His move to claim the highest job in the city of Athens is regarded as one step before entering parliament. Bakoyannis, true to his ideology, stated that Athens’ problem is lack of security with certain neighborhoods suffering from high criminal rate. If he is elected, he wants more active involvement of police, municipal police, and the inclusion of private security firms to patrol the streets. 

The candidate shown by the Greek Communist Party presented a different model. For Mr. Sofianos, the work of the Municipal Police is not to crack down on criminals. For him, a mayor should mobilize the citizens to solve their problems collectively. Governing Syriza’s favorite Mr. Eliopoulos, a favorite party member thought that Athens does not have a security problem but specific issues such as insufficient street lighting. He proposed using old empty municipal buildings to house the more impoverished citizens.

They all agreed that Athens has a problem with dirty streets and slow rubbish collection. More personnel are needed. Mr. Bakoyannis suggested the outsourcing model and Mr. Sofianos suggested hiring more municipal staff. They all wanted Athens to run its own municipal transportation.

There is an interesting phenomenon with Athens. After several years of corruption and overspending, which peaked during the Athens Olympic Games, followed by a terrible economic crisis, the current administration under Mayor Kaminis managed to put the financial affairs of the municipality in order. Athens Municipality is now running with a surplus, but the mayor has been criticized for not spending enough to serve the needs of the Athenians.

According to latest polls, Bakoyannis is ahead by a large margin, followed by Yeroulanos representing the socialists. The other two are well behind. It is a challenge for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras how to handle a possible defeat in the local elections and perhaps in the European Parliament elections. Some say he may immediately call a general election. At any rate, his term ends officially next October.

Athens, mayoral candidates, Greece, Ariana Ferentinou