There’s something not quite ‘right’ going on in a quiet, respectable northern suburb of Athens. As Sunday’s local elections draw closer, a group of people in Papagou-Holargos are refusing to play by the rules. They’re not toeing the line (not even the party one). They’re kicking against the expected and doing things their way - not the way it’s “always been done” simply because – well – that’s the way it’s always been done.
They’re an unlikely band of rebels: teachers, accountants, scout leaders, small businessmen, cyclists, lawyers, insurance salesmen, amateur photographers, bank workers, the occasional artiste thrown in for good measure, housewives, even well-behaved students who listen to their mum when she tells them not to wear that unironed shirt. They don’t want to get mixed up in politics – they want to lead a quiet life, not to rock the boat.
They’re certainly not the type you’d expect to challenge the status quo. Let’s face it, they ARE the status quo – or at least the foot soldiers of the system.
And that’s precisely why they stand a chance of changing things.
Their rivals are gleefully plastering anything that stands still (including poor old Uncle Mitsos who’s not as fast on his feet as he was back in his 1950s heyday) with posters bearing giant leering heads assuring you that they are the best man for the Mayor’s chair. They’re creating interesting new landscapes of leaflets stacked up like snowdrifts against every front door, fluttering gently on car windscreens and being kicked along the street by unseeing feet.
Their rivals are investing bucketloads of dosh to ensure their election with slick, polished brochures filled with images of perfect people sitting in perfect settings. They’ve invited paid stars to perform to a packed open air theatre and boost their headcount for their main speech. And the Photoshoppers’ fingers have been rubbed raw by all the work to make the candidates look like the perfect people in the pamphlets.
Meanwhile, down at ‘8 Proposals’ Central, it’s the assorted volunteered expertise of the candidates and their supporters that have produced their brochure which spells out each of the central proposals. And the musical support for their main speech came from talented, but unpaid, young bands from the neighbourhood.
The central image of their campaign is NOT their main man, but a rainbow of eight colours, each representing a way in which they plan to change things for the better.
They’re talking about their set of clearly defined policies they plan to put in action to make their everyday lives easier, and help everyone in the neighbourhood in the process.
They’re talking about Electronic Governance & Democracy to sidestep the tortuous bureaucracy for which Greece is notorious.
They’re talking about Studies backed up with real facts before starting any new projects, to make sure the plans won’t have to be torn up and work go back to the drawing board after half the funds have already gone.
They’re talking about Public Transport and viable mobility for residents.
They’re talking about Open Schools to support students, offer lifetime learning opportunities and make full use of school facilities.
They’re talking about Social Policy and Health to make sure that no resident, old or young, is left alone and helpless.
They’re talking about Local Development and Place Branding, so they can share with the world what they love most about their neighbourhood and invite them in to enjoy it with them.
They’re talking about supporting the Arts to add another dimension to lives that might otherwise be nothing beyond the work-home-work-home vicious circle.
And they’re talking about Sport for All.
They’ve even worked out where they’re going to get the money for all that.
No wonder their rivals aren’t happy.
“What a load of weirdoes!”, I hear you say. But that’s precisely why I’m on their side. They’re a ‘can do’ team, determined to overcome the pessimism of Greece’s harsh recent reality with the optimism of “Yes, we CAN do this!”. After all, it’s the crazy ones who believe in their vision and back it up with common sense and a solid plan that can make the difference.
Ever since I arrived in Greece a quarter of a century ago, I have been seeing things I didn’t like. Not the people, nor the place – they’re what brought me here and, more importantly, what made me stay. I’m talking about the way things are done – creaking systems that mean you have to take a full day off work to get up at the crack of dawn, stand in line for four hours, only to be told you’re in the wrong place and you need to go to the third floor where the Department head will ink his official stamp and grace your piece of paper with it, in order to come back down to stand in queue again for the scrap of paper you’ve been told you need to get something done.
Perhaps I was spoiled by my UK upbringing, but I couldn’t resist saying “This is nuts! Why don’t they do it THIS way?”. The answer was always “Τι να κάνουμε, κορίτσι μου?“ (Rough translation: “What can we do, my girl?”) with an unmistakably Mediterranean shrug and eyes raised to the ceiling. “This is Greece. That’s the way it is here.”
It made me want to bash my head against the wall in frustration (I still have the scar just above my left eyebrow to show for it).
That’s why the '8 Proposals' crew caught my attention. They’re everyday, low profile, just-want-to-get-on-with-our-lives, respectable people – neither rich nor poor – making a stand to challenge the “That’s just the way it is” stance that has led to stagnation, and worse, in most aspects of Greek public life.
They have no political party allegiance. In fact when one of the major parties approached offering to lend their support they were firmly, but politely, told “No thank you”.
They are not headed by a quasi-Messianic figure promising to lead them into the Promised Land. Instead, there’s the undoubtedly charismatic but far from God-like local newspaper editor – a man who knows the workings of the local administration inside and out. His picture is not photoshopped – unlike some of his rivals who appear (at least in their election literature) to have the perfect skin of untouched virgins who bathe every day in asses’ milk, despite their five decades or more of hard living. Haris Kouyioumtzopolous smokes like a chimney, could stand to lose 20 kg, often shouts too much and usually laughs too hard. But he’s real. And he knows his stuff. He’s flawed, and he knows it. But he cares about things – perhaps a little too much sometimes.
They have no dogma or manifesto. This Army of the Ordinary is not united by a common ideal drawn up by a Victorian with a starched collar and flowing locks 150 years ago, or by the cogs that drive the wheels of capitalism. They have all benefited in their own small way from the market economy, just as they have from some aspects of socialism. No party line, or ideological anthem, brings them together. Just the desire to make the place where they live better.
They’re selfish. They’re not standing for office because of their deep desire to serve the community, or their need to offer something, or because of their “deep seated passion for the place of their birth”. They’re doing it – quite simply – because they’re sick and tired of others making a pig’s ear of the ways things are done.
In England and in the States, we call this ‘grass roots politics’. Greece has no such tradition. Politics, local and national, is dominated by dogmas and dynasties, vested interests and promised or expected favours. And it has survived because people have let it. After all “This is Greece”.
But maybe, with the ‘8 Proposals for Papagou-Holargos’, the time might just have come for those grass roots to start sprouting here?