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Two Familiar Names on the Greek Ballot

Candidates for prime minister have storied families, but voters' focus is on fiscal issues.

March 05, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — A larger-than-life portrait of Andreas Papandreou gazed down on a huge political rally here this week. "Andreas, you live! You are our leader!" the young voters cheered wildly.

Papandreou, the late Greek prime minister, is not a candidate for anything, of course. But his son, George, is leading the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement into national elections Sunday -- a contest between two entrenched, rival political dynasties that will determine Greece's uncertain future.

Polls show Papandreou's Socialists, who have governed the country for all but three of the last 23 years, will probably go down to narrow defeat at the hands of the right-wing New Democracy Party, led by Costas Karamanlis.

Karamanlis is the nephew of conservative icon Constantine Karamanlis, the country's longest-serving prime minister. The uncle led Greece off and on in the 1960s and '70s, including a tense, crucial period of restoring democracy after the 1968 U.S.-backed military coup.

The two names -- Papandreou and Karamanlis -- are thus deeply intertwined in modern Greek history, representing the two families that have shaped the nation, ended its isolationism and made it a full-fledged partner in the European Community.

Voters are perhaps more concerned about immediate problems -- the high cost of living and the low wages that exacerbate it -- than about the storied ancestries of the two men competing to become prime minister. But the familiar names and echo of tribal politics don't hurt.

"For many Greeks, it is comforting," said Anthony Livanios, a pollster and president of Athens-based American Research. "People know both of these families -- they are respected, strong symbols."

Both Papandreou, 51, and Karamanlis, 47, have sought to distance themselves from their progenitors in style, rhetoric and ideology.

Papandreou, whose father founded the Socialist party and whose grandfather was a president and two-time prime minister, was born in the United States to an American mother, schooled at Amherst and speaks accented Greek. His campaign has been patterned in the American style, with lots of personal, hand-clasping, baby-kissing appearances.

Known as "Little George" -- and by his critics as the "Little American" -- Papandreou embraces policies that would have been anathema to the Socialists of his father's generation, such as lowering taxes and privatizing universities.

Papandreou, a popular, charismatic former foreign minister, was placed at the head of the party last month by Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who said he wanted to renew the Socialists' fortunes. The move was seen as the party's only hope to fend off New Democracy's challenge.

"We have shown we can change ourselves," Papandreou said, "which means we can change society."

Karamanlis, similarly, has toed a more centrist line than is familiar to his party's most hard-core supporters. His aides describe his agenda as one that promotes free-market economic policies while advocating programs that benefit the most underprivileged.

The New Democracy Party has stressed the ruling Socialists' inability to solve numerous social problems, such as inadequate healthcare and poor schools, in the last 11 years of uninterrupted rule.

"A cycle has closed," Karamanlis told supporters at a recent rally. "The country is ready for change."

The Socialist party, or PASOK, is beset by scandals and corruption allegations, which Karamanlis and others blame in part on the arrogance of being in office too long.

Both Karamanlis and Papandreou pledge to continue Greece's recent rapprochement with historic enemy Turkey, which includes supporting Muslim nations' efforts to join the European Union.

Papandreou is credited with improving ties with Turkey during his five years as foreign minister, pushing forward a solution to the conflict that divides the island of Cyprus between Greek and Turkish proxies, and softening the anti-American rhetoric for which his father was famous.

Karamanlis, who also has made a point of establishing close relations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says he will continue to pursue Greece's most progressive foreign policies.

But the economy, not foreign policy, appears to be voters' biggest concern, polls show. Greece has the fastest-growing economy in the European Union, but unemployment among women and workers younger than 25 is high. Excessive regulation discourages foreign investment, and the country is suffering substantial capital flight. Greeks worry that spending to produce this summer's Olympics will dry up, further shrinking the job market.

Discontent and nervousness may give New Democracy an election-winning boost, political analysts say.

Lambis Dimitropoulos, a car mechanic, taxi driver and occasional musician, has supported PASOK his entire life, as has everyone in his home village, he said. He plans to vote for the party again, but he doubts that the Socialists will win.

"People are sick of PASOK and want change," said Dimitropoulos, 27. "PASOK needs to lose to get a slap in the face. They are too certain of themselves."

The Socialists may yet pull it off. Greek law prohibits the publication of opinion polls in the two weeks leading up to the vote, and Papandreou was narrowing the margin. Also, PASOK supporters tend to return to the fold when it comes down to casting their ballots, said Livanios, the pollster.

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