APOLLONIA, SIPHNOS – “All politics is local” said the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil. And surely, the heart of a country is in the heartland, in the villages, towns, and neighborhoods of cities – that’s where it beats strongest, and not necessarily in its capital, and certainly not – these days at least – in its parliaments and legislatures.
In Siphnos, a delightful island in the middle of the Aegean, there is genuine enthusiasm for the choices of local candidates being offered on the May 26 ballots.
The system here seems a bit quirky to newcomers from America. Citizens don’t vote directly for mayors, for example, they select a slate of candidates, picking (X marks the spot) a few from that list, and the slate that wins sends its leader to City Hall.
While one slate of municipal candidates seems to be s the clear favorite, the other is also respected. Both potential mayors being held in high regard, and the campaign appearances of each generate enthusiasm.
The contrast with the scene in Athens is striking and sad. Three days before the people of Greece were to go to the polls for local regional, and European Parliament elections, Syntagma Square, the city’s center and Parliament’s courtyard was filled with booths and flyers and big screens and the sounds of speeches – but empty of people.
The cynicism and apparent boredom of the capital knows no bounds, but if Siphnos is representative, elections in the provinces can be about the best men and women who want to do the best for the places they live.
One can argue that after 3000 years, democracy is the institution in human history that has endured longest. During the Roman Empire, Greeks in Asia Minor elected magistrates and representatives to provincial Diets, and even during authoritarian Byzantine times, the people of Cyprus elected their bishops – and in Greece today, Hellenes, at least at the local level, not only demand that their voice be heard – they still believe it is heard.
There are two slates on Siphnos. One is called Σιφνος εν Δραση (Siphnos in Action) and is led by Frankiska Theologou-Vlachotsakou, and the head of the Καινουργια Μερα (Βrand New Day) slate is Maria Nadali, past director of the Cultural Society of Siphnos.
The main point during Nadali’s short and sweet but still substantial speech – she has received guidance from a seasoned Greek-American political activist – was that after a series of successful town hall (Ok, village hall) meetings, is that “I have listened and I have heard you” – the essence of representative democracy.
Family is an element in the capital city/provinces contrasts. Family creeps into the nastier comments of each of Greece’s main parties about the other, but in Siphnos, family is the bedrock, not the ball and chain of one’s reputation – when the candidates for local councils were introduced on the stage of the Prokos Cultural Center (once upon a time it was a cinema; alas, there are no more on Siphnos, but it is a wonderful cultural venue) first their last names were announced, followed by their first names, but then, to reinforce the importance of family, the names of the mother and father were cited.
The big issues of the island include rational and balanced development, hoping to preserve its traditional ways of life as its global popularity grows and grows and the realignment of the piers and streets of its charming of Port of Kamares.
The themes commonly heard on the island encompass people and groups working together for the common good and slogans include “let’s move forward all together for the community,” “Siphnos is changing, a new day has arrived.” “forward with unity and cooperation.”
Usually, “provincial” is pejorative adjective, but in today’s Greece it can be a badge of honor. The message from the citizens on Siphnos is that they are tired of corruption and incompetence, and they are looking for quality people to support. In the provinces, it appears that people still get it, and politics is not just the art of the possible, it is the possibility of social craftsmanship that can build a New Greece, village by village, brick by brick.