Greek voters went to the polls on Sunday and I spent a chunk of the day getting to know people at a polling station in a small village on the island of Naxos. By evening’s end, I’d witnessed a sea change in the village’s political preferences, a bar fight and the counting of 355 ballots for parties ranging from Communist to neo-Nazi.
Checking out polling stations and talking to voters isn’t generally high on the list of priorities for travelers in the Greek islands but with the fate of the Euro at stake and the world watching, I wanted to watch the ballots being counted somewhere on the island of Naxos, where I’m currently staying.
Over the last month, I’ve asked dozens of Greeks in Kos, Patmos, Samos, Syros and Naxos, as well as Greeks from the mainland who were vacationing on the islands, who they were voting for. Before answering, most took the time to denounce politics and politicians in general, and nearly all of them expressed a fatalistic view that it didn’t really matter who won or lost the election.After the May 6 election that produced a stalemate, with no government coalition formed, skepticism has been at an all-time high. A woman we met in Syros started crying when my wife asked her about the election.
“My country,” she said. “Everything’s gone totally wrong.”
Quite a few others told me they were going to vote for Syriza, a coalition of radical left wing parties led by the charismatic 37-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras. The coalition has promised to renegotiate Greece’s bailout deal with its European partners.
“Everyone hears that Europe and the financial markets are scared of Syriza, and that makes people interested in voting for them,” said Anna Avgouli, a newspaper editor in Kos, summing up the views of many I spoke to.
But as the election grew nearer, I started to meet more and more Greeks who said they were voting for the New Democracy party led by Antonis Samaras. Most said that Tsipras was too young and worried that he would isolate Greece, ruin its economy and very possibly get it kicked out of the euro zone.
After driving about a half-hour outside of touristy Naxos town (Hora), I followed a sign leading us to an early 7th Century church, and then stumbled across a polling station in the small village of Ano Sangri. I went inside, introduced myself and Vasiliki “Vaso” Anastasopolou, a 30-something election volunteer, said that I could return at 7 p.m. to watch them count the votes.
Vaso told me that most of the village’s residents are potato and dairy farmers, and, while the rest of the country largely repudiated Pasok (the party that many blame for getting Greece into the mess it’s in), in the most recent election on May 6, they actually garnered the most votes in the village followed by Syriza.
“There are a lot of old people here,” she explained. “They always vote for the same party no matter what’s going on.”
Still, the fact that Syriza finished second in the village surprised many and she and the other election volunteers in the room predicted that Syriza might come in first in the village this time around.
I returned to the Ano Sangri well before the polls closed and had a drink in the village’s only taverna, around the corner from the school that serves as a polling station. A large group of senior citizens was gathered around a television showing a Greek news station that was providing election coverage.
An elderly man wearing an odd woolen suit on a hot day was screaming at another patron and threatening him with his cane. I asked the waiter what was going on.
“Oh nothing,” he said. “They are just, what do you call it…”
“Disagreeing about politics?” I ventured.
“Exactly,” he said.
I sat and watched for a few minutes and couldn’t take my eyes off of a cross-eyed man who looked like he was ready to belt someone.
“He likes Pasok, but the others don’t,” the waiter explained.
When I returned to the polling station amidst an escalating drunken feud at the taverna, I was the object of great curiosity, as everyone wanted to know why I was there and how I had chosen this particular village. I had no coherent answer to the question but no one seemed to care. I was introduced to the town mayor, Stelios Skordialos, a gray-haired man with piercing green eyes, who also held the key to the church I had been looking for that morning.
He cast the final vote in the village, at one minute to seven, and then the doors were locked. There were four volunteers plus representatives from three of the largest political parties to supervise the counting of the votes. The mayor and I sat in the back of the room, whispering.
“Nea Democratia,” he said, pointing to a bearded, wild-eyed man who appeared to have bird shit stains on the back of his shirt. “And him, koo-koo-eh,” he said, using the acronym for Greece’s largest communist party.
In my travels, I couldn’t help but notice how well organized the communists are in Greece. Their posters, featuring the party’s red and yellow hammer and sickle, are in almost every little village all over the Greek Islands, despite the fact that they usually poll at 10 percent or less.
As the mayor and I sat quietly the workers got busy taking the huge clear glass ballot box lid off and dumping all the ballots all over a big long table. The village had ballots from 17 of the 22 parties; a few of the smaller ones didn’t bother to send them ballots, I was told. But some of the fringe ones, like the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, did have ballots and the volunteers told me they got 10 votes in the May 6 election.
“That’s 10 too many,” a volunteer named Takis said. “There are a few crazy people in the village – you’ll see; they’ll probably get even more votes tonight.”
All of the ballots were in sealed envelopes and the volunteers stacked them all neatly on a table and began to open them one by one, using the ballot box as a trash can for all the discarded envelopes.
A couple of minutes after the counting started, a man slipped into the room from a side door and was loudly rebuked by Vaso. A lawyer by trade and the room’s only fluent English speaker, she was clearly in command of this room full of men. As she began to call out the votes, I kept hearing “Syriza, Syriza, Syriza,” and it was clear that a big change in the village was afoot.
Vaso said that all the old people kept voting for Pasok, but clearly many of them had defected. After a few minutes, the count grew tedious and I studied the classroom we were in. There were two chalkboards, a set of old, dusty encyclopedias, an old looking computer, some children’s paintings and portraits of important figures in Greek history adorning the walls.
An hour into the count the results were tabulated; 355 people had turned out to vote and Syriza won in a landslide. The results for the parties that did best in the village are below.
New Democracy- 52
Golden Dawn- 22
Panos Kamenos- 28
Fotis Kovelis- 21
KKE (Communist)- 16
Syriza had carried the day, but there were also apparently 22 neo-Nazi sympathizers and 16 communists in the village.
After the results were tabulated and Vaso called them in to the appropriate ministry, the volunteers cleaned up and I walked out with the mayor and Vaso, who was carrying the ballots in a big white sack (see photo gallery). I asked them why the village had gone for Syriza.
The mayor speculated that seniors were angry that their pensions had been slashed in the austerity measures but Vaso had a different theory.
“They want something different,” she said. “They want to leave the euro and go back to the drachma.”
I scrambled to figure out if Syriza’s win in the village was an outlier or something that had happened all over the country.
The school had no Internet connection, so I repaired to the taverna around the corner to watch TV with the Hatfields and McCoys, who were even more intoxicated by the time I returned.
I shook one man’s hand and he declined to release it, grabbing both of my hands and trying to engage me in an arm wrestling competition. After I broke free, I met Haris Orfanosc, an engineer who grew up in the village but had moved away to Athens. He was back for a visit and had voted in the school he attended as a child.
He explained that New Democracy was slightly ahead of Syriza in the exit polling. The winner would get a 50-seat bonus in parliament and would have to form a majority coalition with at least 150 of the 300 total seats in parliament.
Stelios insisted on buying me a beer and the conversation soon moved on to a much more pleasant topic: Greece’s upcoming EURO 2012 match with Germany. No one could deny that a win over Germany would be sweeter than any bailout deal or election victory.
Shortly after I arrived back in Naxos town, New Democracy’s slim victory over Syriza was confirmed and economists and investors all over the world are breathing a sigh of relief. But unlike the previous night, when Greeks took to the streets to celebrate a soccer win over Russia, the streets were quiet and no one was in the mood to celebrate.