The place smelt of rotting fish. A paradise for Greek street cats but hardly the right ambiance for this occasion. Mind you the venue was hardly inspiring either, being the nether end of a municipal car park in a one of the rather less salubrious suburbs of Thessaloniki.
“Do you want to come to a meeting at Stavroupoli this evening?”
I had told Julia that I was doing nothing else and would be delighted to do so.
“Okay, catch a 27 from Egnatia and I will meet you by the Town Hall at a quarter to eight.”
With foresight I had anticipated the rain, equipping myself with a small black brolly. What I had not anticipated was the cold. I had been sitting in an abandoned bus shelter for some three quarters of an hour awaiting the arrival of my companion and guide. The chill that was eating into my marrow was testament to the vagaries of a mid May evening in Greece.
A street beggar sidled up and sat at the far end of my bus shelter bench. He was dark-skinned and evinced a crippled walk, that might have been genuine. His brown suit was ripped and stained, although no doubt in the distant past it had been the pride of its tailor. He wore a red bobble hat. We hardly glanced at each other but perhaps there was a slight kinship, an abandoned Englishman and an abandoned destitute. We did not speak.People were arriving. Some in smart business suits, others in casual evening wear. Many seemed to know each other, there was a lot of handshaking, hugging and cheek-kissing. Most of the women wore tights and skimpy dresses. I shivered. They did not.The car park was shunned, apparently the pavement was the place for parking, and that in as chaotic a manner as possible. Then Julia was squeezing her rather dirty black Honda between a motor cycle and a lamp post. She greeted me with a thousand apologies, however it was obvious to me that I had been early, having arrived only fifteen minutes after the allocated start time. We ventured towards the noisy, and the by now fairly crowded end of the parking lot. It was getting dark. The rain was just slightly heavier.
A huge picture at the back of the makeshift staging was a masterpiece of PR, depicting a firm but benign grey-bearded, smiling man holding a kid. Umpteen decibels of Greek music were pouring forth from a great tower of speakers draped rather fetchingly against the rain in a green polythene wrap. From this strange looking alien emerged a quivering amplification of sound that drowned any attempts at serious communication. As each track ended the MC would announce in Greek “In just a few minutes we will be joined . . . by . . . YOUR VERY OWN CURRENT AND FUTURE MAYOR.” At which there were would be a great roar of acclaim and the sounding of car horns. The absence of The Man following each of these announcements served to encourage rather than disappoint the damp but cheerful crowd.
Rows of white plastic seats had appeared from nowhere. We made our way towards them with purpose. I certainly had no intention of standing for the next hour. Julia knew, and greeted, so many people that our progress towards said seats was slow, and finally arrested by the appearance of Sofia, complete with her sister. There were more hugs and handshakes and kisses. Shouting over the music Julia explained that the Mayor had, at her suggestion, appointed Sofia as his deputy. Sofia was clearly pleased about this. She was handing out encapsulated pictures of herself to pin on the lapels of her supporters. I managed to avoid such labeling.
We sat. Above the roar of the music I shouted to Julia. “So this is Greek politics?”
“It used to be much bigger than this,” she said. “The new system of Mayoral elections just might revive the old tradition that has been spoiled by television, YouTube and suchlike. These political rallies are not what they were.”
“When is the election?”
“The day after tomorrow, Sunday,” she said.
But now The Man was amongst us. Strangely the ‘real life’ Mayor looked just like the enormous publicity picture that loomed over him. He worked the front row with handshakes then responded to the MC’s introduction by mounting the stage and standing at the lectern beaming at us.
For forty minutes this man spoke. He spoke without notes, and he spoke well. My Greek is such that I understood but little of what he said, however that hardly mattered for the stuff of his talk was that of all politicians He used his voice well, he was clear, he spoke seriously and then lightheartedly, and he roused his audience as he tackled his major issues. They loved it. From time to time, and prompted by the cognoscenti in the front row, they clapped and hooted and shouted their approval. The Man deserved to win on Sunday based on volume alone. Finally, exhibiting all of the hwyl of a Welsh preacher, his voice rose to breaking point as he made his final plea to ‘Vote early and vote often’. Well perhaps my Greek failed me? For the past half hour my thoughts had been turning towards the nearby bar, so it was borne upon me with some displeasure that despite The Man having stood back from the lectern the show was not yet over. One half of what I had assumed was an audience composed of the general public now left its seats and swarmed forward, a great horde of people surging across the front of the area towards the steps of the stage. Meanwhile The Man had received a bunch of flowers from a pretty little girl – as witnessed by the intensity of the flash photography. Now one by one, with the MC calling their names, this great crowd of people filed up on stage to be hand-shaken, hugged and kissed by The Man.
“Who are they?” I mouthed to Julia.
“His Deputies,” she replied.
Oh, so Sofia was just one Deputy amongst this hoard. Well not quite, because once the stage had filled up to breaking point the first tranche of fifty deputies was dismissed, and the Great Man set about welcoming the second tranche to the now empty stage. Sofia’s moment was just that: move forward, handshake, hug, double cheek-kiss, then make way for the next. A last, it was over. The music blared out, and the stagehands swiftly parted us from our chairs. The Man was pumping the flesh. I was introduced as a colleague from England. In my best Greek I said I was sorry I was not registered to vote. His mouth smiled at me. His eyes did not. We went our separate ways.
I needed a drink. I also needed information. We sat in the bar that I had been eyeing all evening. To my persistent questioning Julia explained that there were one hundred deputies who, if The Man were to be elected, would compete for council seats, of which there were 40. Apparently The Man was not of any political party but an independent, as are many such mayoral candidates. Apparently such Independents elicit support from one or more of the established parties, but are not of those parties. Julia seemed surprised when I asked about his policies.
“Oh, we don’t bother about that sort of thing,” she said, “We just vote for him because he is our friend, we like him, and he will look after us.”
I wondered about this. Much as I deplore the state of party politics in the UK, I have a sinking feeling that if the heads of local government in Greece are elected on the basis of being supported by their friends, then there is the expectation of a favour to be repaid. Furthermore, wherever The Man’s rhetoric had led him and his supporters this evening no one in his audience seriously considered his words to be electoral promises. It was the show that mattered, the bonding experience, the bonding of expectations.
I applaud the idea of electing independent candidates, thereby slipping the straightjacket of party politics. But in voting for such I would prefer to back a well-balanced and immutable policy agenda that the candidate feels obliged to implement.
Now The Man was working our bar. He slapped men on the back, he nodded sagely as individuals bent his ear, he even kissed the scantily dressed waitress who was in much more danger of revealing the more rounded parts of her body than The Man was of revealing his politics. He even sat, albeit briefly, and probably by mistake, at our table. And then he was gone.
Perhaps I am wrong. It is arguable that local government should be conducted on the basis of who knows who and what favours are owed. At the very least it is friendlier than the UK system, and in a strange way more open. What is more it seems to work – as well as anything ever does in Greece!