(New York Times)

29 August 2007

Greek Government Faces Political Fallout From Fires

Published: August 29, 2007

ATHENS, Aug. 28 — The fires that tore omnivorously through scores of villages and olive groves here may now also be changing Greece’s political landscape: the government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, facing national elections next month, came under increasing criticism Tuesday, not only over its handling of the fires but also over whether it intensified Greeks’ fears about who might be to blame.

It is unclear whether the criticism will be enough to alter the outcome of the national elections on Sept. 16. But a new national poll showed the gap narrowing to less than one percent between the New Democracy party led by Mr. Karamanlis and the Socialist opposition party, Pasok.

The opposition leader, George A. Papandreou, is seizing on the anger, in an effort to sway the many undecided voters in a close race.

“Unfortunately, the government has proven ineffective,” he told reporters here on Tuesday. “It continues to act irresponsibly. It is busy fabricating conspiracy terror theories. The result: Greeks are being ridiculed abroad”.
He added, “Our nation cannot tolerate a government propped up on fear”.

Fire officials reported a second day of progress in battling the fires, including the most deadly ones on the Peloponnesian peninsula and the island of Euboea north of the capital. With winds relatively still for a third day, and much help in place from foreign fire brigades, only one new death was reported, that of a herdsman near Zaharo on the Peloponnesian peninsula who had been missing for several days.
The death toll now stands at 64 since Friday.

“The picture we have today gives us some relative optimism,” Nikolaos Diamantis, a fire service spokesman, told reporters here Tuesday. “We hope there’s nothing unexpected which will change our operational planning or cause problems. We believe we will have good results”.

On Saturday, as the death toll rose and Greek television broadcast live interviews with people trapped by fires — and with no immediate help — Mr. Karamanlis declared a national state of emergency. He also stated that he believed arson was the cause, saying that it “cannot be a coincidence” that so many fires started at the same time.
Then his public order minister, Vyron Polydoras, said Greece faced an “asymmetrical threat” — a term that usually refers to small terrorist groups attacking a far larger target.

Past forest fires have indeed been set by arsonists, often property owners wanting to develop land set aside as forest. And without doubt, New Democracy’s suggestions dovetailed with conspiracy theories mouthed by many Greeks, in a political culture full of conspiracy.

Some speculated that it might be the work of Greece’s age-old nemesis Turkey or a home-grown, or possibly even foreign, terrorist group. One man in the hard-hit western Peloponnesian peninsula even suggested that it was a conspiracy between the government and makers of particle board for cheap wood.

But in a nation that has only recently begun to overcome its deep divisions, hardened by civil war, dictatorship and internal terrorist groups, there seems a growing outrage against any possible use of fear as a political weapon.
“Any politician who dares to exploit this tragedy for partisan political reasons — anyone who dares to display such arrogance or hackneyed rhetoric at a time of national mourning — will pay deeply”, read a front page editorial on Monday in the newspaper Kathimerini.

Theodore Couloumbis, vice president of a political research group, Eliamep, said of the fear mongering, “Without proof, it’s beginning to boomerang”.

“This kind of polarization does not play well with Greeks,” added Mr. Couloumbis, who counts himself among the undecided voters whom both parties are working to court.

Government officials have denied stirring fears, maintaining that the fires are indeed caused by arson. Nearly 80 people have been detained on suspicion of starting fires, and seven have been charged.
“The government is not trying to imply anything but is simply wondering the same thing as every Greek,” Theodoros Roussopoulos, a government spokesman, said Monday.

Mr. Couloumbis noted that, whatever the criticism, the government has appeared to gain some credit with a swift, relatively generous package of benefits for the victims of the fire. That, he said, could offset some of the anger over its response and suggestions of who is to blame. Much could happen before Sept. 16, which he said made the election still too close to call.

“If the undecided voter evaluates the immediate response of the government, it will play against them,” he said. “If they evaluate the current response, especially compensation and placing people in hotels who suffered, the government could gain.”