25 Jan 2015

Greek election: with hours to go, change is in the air

The ships edge slowly in and out of the Piraeas container terminal as normal, and the Aegean Sea glitters like it always has. But in the gritty streets of Keratsini, the dockside community, you can sense change is in the air.

The ballot stations are still brisk at lunchtime, but a lot of people have already voted. This is a working class community – and on a Sunday the over-70s, who make up 22 per cent of Greek voters, are out in force.


As they come out of the polling booths, some people are reticent about what they’ve done: “Let’s just say I voted for change” one woman tells me, smiling. I’m pretty certain that means Syriza – and if that’s repeated across the country, these shrugs and smiles of the “not telling” voters could be significant.

What it means, quite simply, is that people whose families have voted right or centre-right for generations may have switched.


And the issue, according to Eleni Kompogiannitou, is jobs. Nobody in her family works. In some sub-neighbourhoods of Keratsini,  nine out of ten adults are unemployed. The hulk of an old cement factory tells part of the story: Greece barely had an industry to collapse; it could not produce its way out of austerity.

And austerity, real incomes falling by a third, 25 per cent unemployment, and the decision to raise extra taxes via people’s electricity bills, cutting off power if they don’t pay, has left the poor in Greece reeling.

From what I can tell, with three hours left of the voting, the vote of the centre-right New Democracy party has held up: but even in its traditional areas, it has come under pressure. There are still, probably, 26 per cent of Greeks who want a conservative government, austerity economics and tough policing of dissent.

But 33 per cent – on the last pre-election polls – want the kind of radical change Syriza is promising.

Euro exit

At the polling station, when I ask people about the government’s warnings about “chaos” – and Euro exit, they give a different kind of answer to the Syriza activists. Syriza people will always stress their determination not to back down, laying the blame on Europe if it pulls the trigger on a banking crisis or default.

But the street view is: we’re not expecting miracles. We know they can’t raise wages from 300 a month to a thousand, Vasiliki Georgoudaki tells me: but they could cut VAT, cut council rates, and create jobs. She’s voted Pasok all her life and has just switched to Syriza.

At the traffic lights there’s a man – a former docker – selling pocket tissues. “Out of work for four years,” his sign says: “so come on buy a tissue!”

He hasn’t voted yet and I can sense his mind toying with Syriza. He’s bitter about what happened but – in coded language – indicates he thinks the far right Golden Dawn party have been “misunderstood”. Syriza, he says, will probably sell out like the rest of them.

It’s a reminder that for all its leftish rhetoric, Syriza is not a product of the tough, manual working class culture of the dockside. When its candidates turned up inside the privatised containter terminal, to speak to the dockers union, they were heckled by the workers. “You’re here now but where were you before?”, was the general tenor: Syriza’s candidates are often journalists, NGO workers, medics or lawyers.

I meet Yiannis Filippou, a jobless teacher turned part time sushi chef, and one of Syriza’s twenty-something organisers here. He reports:

“People are coming up to me and saying, for the first time in any election, even though we don’t agree with you, we voted for you. I can see hope in people’s eyes.”

Electoral electoral history happens when somebody catches the mood: when there are clear choices and centrist voters feel the pull of an emotional magnet.

Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy leader, won the June 2012 election because he magnetised centrist voters with fear: that a left government would plunge the country into chaos.

If the polls are right, this time it hasn’t worked. And Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, has repeated a single mantra since the start: hope is coming, hope begins today.

Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter