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Greek Election Overshadowed by Response to Fires


Greek voters went to the polls today and according to Wire Services, exit polls indicate the ruling conservative party will remain in power. Last month's deadly wildfires in Greece are on voters' minds, many of them angry over what they say was a slow government response to the disaster. But that wasn't enough to give the socialist opposition a victory. The leaders of both parties are heirs to the political dynasties that have governed Greece for decades.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Athens.


SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Along Ermou Street, elegantly dressed Greeks shop at designer boutiques and computer stores. They represent the modern cosmopolitan Greece that emerged with the perfectly executed Olympic games three years ago. They coexist with an older, more patriarchal Greece.

(Soundbite of people talking)

POGGIOLI: The strident voice of an old man playing an organ grinder reflects the other face of the country.

Mr. ALEX PAPAHELAS (Executive Editor, Kathimerini): I often talk about two Greece.

POGGIOLI: Alexis Papahelas is executive editor of the authoritative Kathimerini newspaper.


Mr. PAPAHELAS: This, my Greece, which is very dynamic and, you know, sort of a business community, NGOs, civil society. And then there's the other Greece, which is sort of, you know, the average son of a Greek family, waiting around in the cafe, having coffee waiting to be appointed in the public ministry, complaining about, you know, why state doesn't provide enough for him.

POGGIOLI: Political patronage flourished even during the junta, the seven-year military dictatorship that ended in 1974. But Papahelas says the state's slow response to the August wildfires produced collective shock.

Mr. PAPAHELAS: We realize that this state of (unintelligible) we built after the junta years, after '74, has a lot of serious deficiencies. You know, the police system, the fire system, the ministry of public order, you know, they're all sort of very badly organized until it's choosing like a very good, like, a fire commander, people, you know, choose, like, they're political crony. People are really fed up with this system.

POGGIOLI: This political system is also very much a family business. It's been called a hereditary democracy.

Over the past half century, three last names have dominated Greek politics -Karamanlis and Mitsotakis on the right and Papandreou on the left. The names still reflect the ideological rift of the civil war in the late 1940s.

Novelist Nicholas Papandreou does not want to enter politics. He left that to his older brother. George Papandreou leads the Opposition Socialist Party founded by their father, Andreas. Nicholas Papandreou says memories of past conflicts have engendered deep loyalty to political dynasties.

Mr. NICHOLAS PAPANDREOU (Novelist): And when there's key change with your father's figure on it, when people stop you in the street and hug you and kiss you because they remember your grandfather, they remember your father, or they remember you as a kid, and they remember their life, and they begin to cry because they remember their passions as youth, their dreams that never became true. And you represent all that to them.

POGGIOLI: But the dynastic heirs have new political styles and policies. Socialist George Papandreou has abandoned the anti-American rhetoric of his father. And the incumbent Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis of the New Democracy Party has dropped the right wing slogans of his Uncle Constantine, a former prime minister.

Prime Minister KOSTAS KARAMANLIS (Greece): (Greek Spoken)

POGGIOLI: At a final rally Friday evening, Prime Minister Karamanlis vowed to continue with daring steps for strong economy and a humane society of solidarity. But the turnout for the closing rallies of both major parties was low.

Kathimerini editor Papahelas says young people were noticeably absent.

Mr. PAPAHELAS: I think people have started questioning this, whether this is enough. You know, to have a name like Papandreou or Mitsotakis or Karamanlis.

POGGIOLI: One young heir to a political dynasty acknowledges the need for change. Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the New Democracy Party is the nephew of a former prime minister.

Mr. KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS (President, New Democratic Party): For me, it was relatively easy to enter politics because I have, you know, a well-known brand name and my first step was relatively easy. But there's a - I would agree with you, there's a high barrier to entry for politics in Greece. I'm willing to change, actually, to make politics more attractive for young people.

POGGIOLI: The last polls show both the New Democracy Party and the Opposition Socialist losing support. And there has been a surge in the number of undecided, especially among the young.

Twenty-four year old Alexis Rutonis(ph) is one disaffected voter.

Mr. ALEXIS RUTONIS (Greek Voter): (Through translator) My generation and young generations in general in Greece think that the last two governments in Greece have done nothing to take care of our issues and our problems and us.

POGGIOLI: Many pollsters were predicting high numbers of blank ballots and the possibility that a protest vote could bring an extreme right wing nationalist party into parliament for the first time in three decades.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.