Wildfires ignite political turmoil in Greece

Posted in Europe | 29-Aug-07 | Author: Ian Fisher and Anthee Carassav| Source: International Herald Tribune

The ruins of her gutted home in the village of Platanos bring tears to Katerina Antonopolou, 76. The Greek fires killed 64 people.

ATHENS: The fires that tore omnivorously through scores of villages and olive groves here may now also be changing the Greek political landscape: The government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, facing national elections next month, is under increasing criticism, not only over its handling of the fires but over whether it stoked 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 published here Tuesday showed the gap narrowing to less than one percent between Karamanlis's New Democracy party and the socialist opposition party Pasok.

And the opposition leader, George 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 said Tuesday. "It continues to act irresponsibly. It is busy fabricating conspiracy terror theories. The result: Greeks are being ridiculed abroad."

"Our nation cannot tolerate a government propped up on fear," he said.

Meantime, fire officials reported Tuesday a second day of progress in battling the fires, the most deadly ones on Peloponnesus and the island of Evia north of the capital. With winds relatively still for a third day, and much help in place from foreign firefighters, only one new death was reported Tuesday, a herdsman near Zaharo on the Peloponnesus 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, said Tuesday. "We hope there's nothing unexpected that 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 no immediate help - Karamanlis declared a national state of emergency. He also stated that he believed arson had been 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 "asymetrical 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 expressed by many Greeks, in a political culture full of conspiracy.

Some speculated that it might be the work of Turkey or a home-grown, or possibly even foreign, terror group. One man in the hard-hit western Peloponnesus 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 terror 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 Monday in the newspaper Kathimerini.

Theordore Couloumbis, vice president of a political research group, Eliamep, said: "Without proof, it's beginning to boomerang."

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

Government officials have denied stirring fear, charging 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.

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. And he said much could happen between now and Sept. 16 - fact that 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."