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Greece's ruling party faces trial by fires

The damage from widespread blazes could extend to the political system when elections are held this month.

September 01, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — When he called elections six months ahead of schedule, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was ahead in the polls, had scored important economic success and probably expected an easy victory.

Then came Greece's most devastating fire season on record. A week of relentless blazes charred more than half a million acres of farmland and villages, killed at least 64 people and now threatens to upend national politics.

With harried firefighters from a dozen nations finally getting an upper hand on most of the wildfires, officials are assessing the political and economic fallout from the disaster.

The government estimates damages at more than $1.6 billion, about 0.6% of the country's gross domestic product, but says it will have access to as much as $800 million in emergency funds from the European Union. Greek news media put the total much higher.

The important olive oil industry will be badly hurt, officials say. In just one heavily hit area, Ilia, about 4 million olive trees were burned.

Overall, though, the government says, the fire-ravaged stretches of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece account for only about 12% of agricultural output.

Tourism, Greece's top money-earner after shipping, may suffer if travelers eschew the once-lush forested beach areas of Peloponnesus. Tour operators say they hope travelers will reroute to unscathed parts of the country, such as Athens and most of the islands.

Much of the damage will be political.

Final polls before the Sept. 16 vote, published Friday, give a narrow lead to Karamanlis' New Democracy Party.

But they also show that both New Democracy and the main opposition party, the Socialists, who ruled for all but three years from 1981 until 2004, have lost ground because of public anger over the fires, government handling of the crisis and the years of neglect and corruption that made Greece such a tinderbox.

As a result, smaller parties will tend to benefit, analysts say, and their advances will eat away at any majority gained by the winner of the election. In Greece's parliamentary system, that means it will be more difficult for the winning party to govern.

"In that scenario, just one member of parliament can have enormous power over the prime minister," said Anthony Livanios, head of Alphametrics, a research agency that does polling for New Democracy.

Livanios does not believe Karamanlis miscalculated by calling elections when he did, and says voters will ultimately decide to stick with the ruling party at a time of crisis. But he expects New Democracy's majority in parliament to shrink to just a few seats.

With less of a mandate, Karamanlis will have trouble pushing through legislation that promises to be divisive and unpopular, such as pension reform that is crucial in a country with an aging population.

Karamanlis and his government were attacked bitterly by the public, opposition politicians and even the pro-government news media for what was seen as a slow and incompetent reaction to the fires.

Struggling to deflect the criticism, Karamanlis quickly announced cash handouts of more than $4,000 for victims. By Friday, the government said, it had paid nearly $100 million to 20,000 people who lost property or livestock.

But that program backfired too, with ugly scenes of desperate people storming banks to get the money. Scam artists also allegedly claimed money they did not qualify for.

One opposition newspaper, referring to the fire rampage as a "holocaust," branded the government handouts as "bribes so the dead can be forgotten." And the pro-government Kathimerini newspaper accused Karamanlis of election-season haste to give away money. "This has been yet another punch to our bankrupt political system," it said.

On the streets of Athens, public opinion Friday was divided and intense.

Peter Lambrou, 45, the proprietor of a coffee shop, said he remained firm in his support for the ruling New Democracy Party because he doubted the Socialists would have handled the crisis any more efficiently.

"I think the government did what it could," he said. "There were 200 fires on the same day. It was like 9/11 in the U.S."

Lorentzatou Aggeliki, a 65-year-old woman who was taking her granddaughter shopping near the downtown Omonia Square, agreed.

"I am very saddened by what happened, but it won't change how I vote," she said. Though she believes New Democracy will win, it probably will not be able to form a stable government, she said.

But Evangelos Lazaridis, a longtime supporter of the Socialist Party, was scathing in his criticism of the government.

"I'm ashamed of being Greek," said the barrel-chested administrator at an oil company. "When they can't protect our ancient monuments, the holiest thing for any country, then there's nothing else to say."

He was referring to reports that ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago, was damaged in the fires.

"If the prime minister had any sensitivity, he would resign," added Lazaridis, 50.

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