ATHENS – Greece’s hotly-contested elections that were due to be set before for a head-on train collision killed 57 people will come some time in May, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in what looks like a free-for-all.
His New Democracy government slipped some 4 points in recent surveys but the major opposition SYRIZA, which was unseated in July, 2019 snap elections, hasn’t been able to gain, smaller parties seeing voters shifting.
The polls said as many as seven parties – there are now six – could get into Parliament and that a change in electoral law passed by SYRIZA taking away a 50-seat bonus for the winner could bring a second election, barring a coalition.
After a brief mourning period the per-campaigning began with the two dominant parties blaming each other for the tragedy, the sniping stepping up after SYRIZA said the government lied about a railways telemanagement system being operational, without explaining why it didn’t prevent the crash.
Media reports earlier pointed to May 14 or May 21 as the likely date as Mitsotakis would have to dissolve Parliament and step aside for an interim government once he announces the date.
That will effectively leave Greece in a kind of power vacuum limbo for weeks, or longer, if even a second election can’t a government and wild scenarios being tossed around about oddball coalitions uniting bitter rivals.
“I can tell you with certainty that the elections will be held in May,” Mitsotakis said in interview with Alpha TV, his first since the disaster, the catastrophe coming as he was trying to hold down the damage of a surveillance scandal.
Mitsotakis said he wants to rule outright again without a coalition partner and said that Greece needs one-party rule as “the right solution for the country,” that would give him unchecked authority.
Tens of thousands of people have rallied across Greece over the crash, in the largest street protests the government has faced since being elected in 2019, protesters blaming Mitsotakis’ administration for failing to implement safety measures on the railroads – he blamed SYRIZA.
Mitsotakis said that going to the crash scene – where he first blamed “human error” and a poorly-trained stationmaster before apologizing to survivors and families of victims – was “tough” but that he didn’t consider resigning.
His then Transportation Minister Kostas Karamanlis did quit but said the accident wasn’t his fault either and is being kept on the parliamentary list of New Democracy candidates instead of booted.
“I aim to win elections again and I believe that we will eventually succeed,” said Mitsotakis after he earlier said the victims were a “sacrifice,” that will finally make the railways safe to use.
“It is inconceivable to think that in Greece in 2023, two trains can be on the same track, moving in opposite directions, and no one realizes. I believe that all the citizens have understood – in their anger and their rage – that in this accident are distilled the dysfunctions of many decades, which we now have an obligation, however, to deal with drastically,” he said, without explaining why his government didn’t do it before.
OFF THE RAILS
A government spokesman earlier said that Mitsotakis – who said he wasn’t informed about the National Intelligence Service EYP bugging phones although the spy agency is supposed to report to him – didn’t know the trains weren’t safe.
Many of those killed were university students going from Athens to Greece’s second-largest city Thessaloniki to resume classes after the first annual carnival celebration in three years, that had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the young passengers who were on the train but survived questioned him and his answer was that they must help bring change and that he had heard the rage in the streets.
“We must all change together, it is not just an issue of leadership, which obviously has the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of Greek citizens,” he said, an investigation ongoing and promises of reform made.
He sidetracked the discussion to note that rescue and recovery crews quickly responded to a disaster he said shouldn’t have happened and acknowledged that people may not feel safe for some time on the trains, with partial service resuming.
“I will make sure that we train a great spotlight and shed ample light on exactly what happened. Not just on the night of February 28 at Larisa station – this we have all more-or-less understood – but on how we got there. In other words, responsibilities. Justice is investigating them but we must also look into how we got to that night,” he said.
SYRIZA spokesperson Popi Tsapanidou said that stationmasters who contradicted government assertions a telemanagement system was operating weren’t telling the truth, after party leader and former premier Alexis Tsipras went to the Larissa station to find out for himself and TV crews showed it was dismantled.
She said the stationmasters comments confirmed the system wasn’t working after it began to be put in place by a SYRIZA government but wasn’t completed and if operational “would have averted the tragedy.”:
She also accused “both ministers and (Hellenic Railways Organisation) of now playing with words and ‘christening’ a local station master’s board, which sees only the entrance and exit from the station, a telemanagement system.”
“What else must happen for the government to stop lying and insulting the memory of the 57 people who were so unfairly lost,” Tsapanidou added, said the state-run Athens-Macedonia News Agency AMNA.
Mitsotakis said Tsipras’ visit to the station didn’t prove anything and insisted that a local monitoring system was working there, but didn’t say why the crash happened if it was operational.
“Society wants to be united and I believe is deeply disturbed by the politicization of this incident … what Mr. Tsipras did in Larissa was a communications show,” he said in a sharp dig.
He accused Tsipras of going to a different station and not the Larissa station which Mitsotakis said was working as the two sides now are taking more pot shots at each other as the time goes by.
Mitsotakis’ government asked for the European Commission to provide expertise on how to run the railroads and take part in an investigation into a contract for safety systems that wasn’t fulfilled.