Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2004

Old hands embrace modern Greece

The BBC's Allan Little visits rural Greece and finds many voters looking for change in Sunday's elections.

We were a long way from the sun-kissed terraces of the tourist imagination, in the mountains of the Peloponnese.

Costas Karamanlis (left) and George Papandreou (right), before a televised election debate
Costas Karamanlis and George Papandreou have famous ancestry

Among olive groves and citrus orchards, and little red-roofed houses, was an old woman towing a donkey by the nose, loaded with gnarled black firewood. Her husband was 50 paces behind her with a shovel and a hose slung over his shoulder.

This is the Greece that remains close to the bottom of the European Union's economic league tables, where an undiversified economy brings not only entrenched poverty but also acute vulnerability.

Poor harvest

It has been the worst winter in 100 years. Five days of extreme cold has laid waste to the citrus crop.

In Greece everything depends on who you know
Aleka, Greek landowner

On the pale green and brown hillsides there are carpets of bright yellow and orange dots - unripe fruit frozen off the trees that now lies rotting in the wet earth.

Finally we arrive at Aleka's farm. She has been working the land here for 20 years and in a good year, she says she can earn perhaps 6,000 euros (£4,000) from her 100 lemon and orange trees.

Not this year. This year it has all gone.

Woman at bus stop in Athens surrounded by posters of George Papandreou
Mr Papandreou is said to be a calm, thoughtful and diplomatic politician

She shakes the branches and the dead fruit drops. The dried leaves rustle and she says she must wait until all the leaves have fallen before she can assess how many of her trees might still bear fruit in future... and how many will have to be chopped down.

"What about compensation?" I asked her. "Is there any state help to get you started again?"

"I do not know", she said. "In Greece everything depends on who you know. You need connections in the government to get anything done, help with the farm, a job for your son, investment in an enterprise."


Everybody knows this about Greece. A network of nepotism and clientism has insinuated its way into the political system.

A culture of who-you-know favouritism is part of what stands between Greece and the economic development of which it is capable.

Everyone seems agreed that the country needs a fresh start.

Your DNA is more important than your manifesto

And then you look at the names on the election hustings - Papandreou and Karamanlis - dynastic names.

George Papandreou is the leader of the ruling Socialist party Pasok. He has been an impressive foreign minister but his record is not really what counts. It is his pedigree that matters.

His name is the most bankable brand in Greek politics. His grandfather and father were both prime ministers.

At a Pasok youth rally this week he was drowned out by the euphoric cheers of his fans. He was jostled like a champion boxer leaving the ring after a prize fight.

Election poster of Conservative party leader Costas Karamanlis
Mr Karamanlis's Conservative party lost the 2000 election by a whisker

From the podium he is trying to give a speech but no one listened. It was not a rally, it was a rave for the royal family of Greek democracy.

What you say is not really the point. Your DNA is more important than your manifesto.

The same is true in the blue corner, where Papandreou's conservative challenger is Costas Karamanlis, the leader of New Democracy.

He is the nephew of a prime minister who 30 years ago re-established Greek democracy after seven years of military dictatorship.

Papandreou v Karamanlis

It is thought the Greeks are shy of embracing the new, preferring instead the comfortable certainties of the old loyalties.

But this is misleading.

I sat the other day in a city centre cafe with Alexis Papahellas, the editor and presenter of one a Greece's most influential television current affairs programmes.

"You know", he said "these two are very different to their predecessors. They are modern, they are European and if you put them in a room alone they would agree on 95% of the issues and that is the paradox."

But paradox, like democracy, is a Greek word seen from a 30-year perspective. From the perspective of a country emerging from dictatorship, Greek democracy is in robust good health.

The European Union has played a key role in securing the transition from tyranny to democracy, just as it did in Spain and Portugal in the 70s and 80s, and just as it is doing now in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

The choice Greeks face between these two political dynasties allows them to adhere to the loyalties of the old Greece, while moving forward into the new European reality.

For in rural Greece, with its economy of the donkey and the olive tree, where five days of frost can destroy your livelihood and that of everyone around you, radical change is sorely needed.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 March, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Neck-and-neck race in Greek vote
05 Mar 04 |  Europe
Profile: Costas Karamanlis
05 Mar 04 |  Europe
Profile: George Papandreou
05 Oct 09 |  Europe

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