Greek PM no longer an election shoo-in after recent fires


Mon, Sep 03, 2007 - Page 6

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis seemed to be heading serenely towards re-election on Sept. 16 until last week, when fires tore through forests, killing more then 60 people and throwing his government's reflexes into question.

Greece was plunged into a national disaster as villages were consumed by fires that moved faster than a car and people were burned to death as they attempted to escape.

Distraught villagers who had seen relatives killed and their livelihoods reduced to ashes asked where the firefighters were when the flames engulfed their communities.

"They knew the fire had been coming for two days, and yet they did not send forces to guard Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics and a global heritage site," said a guard at the Olympia Archaeological Museum.

"If that's not incompetence, then what is it?" he asked.

Karamanlis' conservative government confirmed that a general election scheduled for Sept. 16 would go ahead, but the opposition Socialists (PASOK) scented blood over the handling of the fires.

PASOK leader George Papandreou has accused the government of being ill-prepared for the ferocity of the flames which tore through forested areas parched by two months of intense heat.

"We have to tell our children the truth," Papandreou said. "Our country has suffered the biggest catastrophe since the war and there are no excuses."

In a matter of days, the lead of Karamanlis and his New Democracy (ND) party in the opinion polls looked shaky.

From a two-point advantage over the Socialists before the fires, the lead reduced to between 0.3 percent and 1.6 percent, according to four polls published on Thursday.

"People are angry. The authorities do not seem to have given the fires the attention they deserved and there are bound to be repercussions for the election," political analyst George Sefertzis said.

"PASOK has obviously increased its chances of winning, but the question is whether the dissatisfaction with Karamanlis will translate into votes for the Socialists or just increase the number of abstentions," he said.

The government quickly blamed arsonists for the fires, and the minister of public order went a step further, arguing that Greece was facing an "asymmetric threat," a term usually reserved for guerrillas and suicide bombers.

The previous day, Karamanlis himself had noted in a televised address: "So many fires, at the same time, in so many areas of the country cannot be a coincidence."