Among the gaggle of smaller parties fighting it out in the single digits in the first wave of opinion polls on the upcoming Greek elections, many sharp-eyed observers have noted a new entrant: a party bearing the innocuous name Centrists Union (Ένωση Κεντρώων). Their leader recently posted a sombre YouTube appeal for greater European solidarity and a touchingly home-made campaign video. Mention their name, or his (Vassilis Leventis), and you are likely to get a very different response from a Greek than you would from an outside observer. If you are new to this, and tempted to see a force for renewal in Greek politics, led by a sensible, straight-talking father figure, untainted by the sins of the old political class, think again. Yes, their polling numbers are a symptom of Greek electorate’s disillusionment in the ancien regime and its younger pretenders, but look closer and you will see the “dark matter” from which a tired political system is replenishing its wasted energy in the perpetual election cycle.
For anyone who was old enough in the mid-90s to stay up watching late night informercials on the numerous private TV channels that broadcast over Athens from unlicensed aerials on the hill of Ymittos, Vassilis Leventis is a legend. He could be seen as a pioneer of a modern political genre, a leader in “infomercial politics” before the age of internet radio and social media. More depressingly, other representatives of the genre have been more successful in recent years in infiltrating the political mainstream; and the reservoir may not yet be depleted. Below, for the benefit of Greek election-watchers, is a guide to the Original, the Upstart and the the dystopian Godfather of Greek infomercial politics; they are not the only ones but they are more than enough to illustrate my point.
The Original: Vassilis Leventis, as his sanitised English-language Wikipedia entry will tell you, started out in conventional politics, and ran for both dominant political parties PASOK and ND in the 80s, and his own Ecological party, never once managing to attract 1% of the vote. As head of the Union of Centrists, which he founded in 1992, he gained a cult following for: his foul-mouthed late-night rants against “establishment” politicians, on at least one occasion wishing death and cancer on them and their families; sucking down and hurling his frappé glass in a rage on camera; being serially pranked on air; providing a ready source material for satirists. You would not know this from looking at him now. In his more recent incarnation as a sober elder statesman, he is known for: “prophesying” the crisis and the July 2015 referendum; “talking sense” as an honoured guest on the mainstream media; eliciting apologies and endorsements from his former satirists; and finally polling over 1% in the January 2015 elections. It is a remarkable apparent rehabilitation (though perhaps not the most suspicious one taking place in Greek frontline politics), in which most recent polls show his party neck and neck with Syriza breakaways Popular Unity, taking a seat in parliament ahead of “establishment” party PASOK, and Syriza’s favoured coalition partner ANEL. Rating: “Buyer Beware”
The Upstart: Adonis Georgiadis is perhaps the most successful representative of the informercial politics genre to make it into mainstream politics. Currently with ND, he got his start in politics with LAOS, the far right nationalist party fronted by Georgios Karatzaferis, which had its moment in the noughties before being eventually outflanked on the right by Golden Dawn and finally evaporated after drinking the poison chalice of the junior coalition partner in the “national unity” cabinet under Lucas Papademos in 2011 – not before Adonis had jumped ship to ND to take a seat at the cabinet. However, once again aficionados of the off-peak infomercial would be recognise Georgiadis from from his regular slot «Ελλήνων Έγερσις» (Rise of the Greeks) on Karantzaferis’s TELE-ASTY TV station, in which he and his brother sold, in the style of market traders, translations of ancient Greek authors alongside more apocryphal publications praising the achievements and racial superiority of the Greek people, all the while excoriating their political opponents and ranting against immigration and Zionist conspiracies. While his opponents refer to him derisively as βιβλιοπώλης (bookseller) and τηλεπλασιέ (telesalesman), it is this distinctive confrontational style that has made him popular within mainstream politics, where language tends to be wooden and unspontaneous. He has what the English would call “the common touch”, a gift for communicating to the public without condescending. These days he sells cheap tablet computers pre-loaded with the classics, but he has less need to buy time on fringe TV channels as he is a prized guest on political talk-show panels. Many (even among those opposed to him politically) rejoiced to see him shout down unionists during his tenure as Minister of Health, or more recently in opposition, bait his political opponent (but spiritual idiot cousin) Panos Kammenos of ANEL in parliamentary debates. When cornered, however, his defensive reflex is to promise to seal the borders. He and his wife, a Julliard graduate composer-turned-Greek reality TV star, make a formidable power couple – if you’re into that sort of thing. Rating: “Buy” – if your goal is to restore ND to power at all costs, he would make a strong leadership candidate.
The Godfather: If you want to gaze into a dystopian future of Greek politics, look no further than Demosthenes Liakopoulos. Like Georgiades, Liakopoulos specialises in selling books by the metre on TV, or more recently the internet. For anyone who has followed the ascendancy of Alex Jones on the US talk radio scene, the name of his website, prisonplanet.gr, should give a fair idea of his stock-in-trade: a few thin strands of ancient Greek history, woven in with hefty yarns of conspiracy theory, anti-semitism, survivalism (most notably his “Delphic Survival Guides”) and alien archaeology into a rich tapestry of hokum. In one of his favoured theories, the Russians (aka. the “ξανθο γενος”, or “blonde race”) under Vladimir Putin will defeat the NATO forces (he claims to have served with NATO) in the Third World War and restore the Greeks as the Chosen People ruling over the restored Roman Empire. In other words, as credible a political agenda as any for Greece in 2015. Should Liakopoulos choose to run for office (and hopefully he has too little interest in earthly politics to do so), he would face almost no opposition, as the only people who have taken the trouble to debunk him are equally obscure Orthodox Christian bloggers. Hypothetical rating: “Buy” – if you want to split the Golden Dawn vote.
You may think that a few cranks in a body of 300 won’t make that big a difference, compared to the huge volumes of vested interests represented; but it speaks volumes about the paucity of talent on Greece’s political scene that such characters could conceivably be seen as a breath of fresh air. And if you are tempted to laugh too hard, remember this when Donald Trump gets the keys to the White House.