On Monday the campaigning period in Greece will peak with the TV debate between former PM Alexis Tsipras and opposition leader Vangelis Meimarakis of Nea Demokratia. The expectation is that it will be a more lively affair (if not necessarily more informative) than the all-leader cardboard set piece earlier this week, in which predictably the mysterious “Kanenas” stole the show.
So much of the opposition leader’s communication is non-verbal and culturally specific that it is lost in translation in much of the foreign press coverage. It is well worth spending some time picking it apart to better appreciate the dynamics of Monday’s “telemachy” and this bizarre and unpredictable electoral contest more generally.
First, a bit of background. It is worth noting that Meimarakis is where he is today not quite by accident, but certainly not by design. He is an interim leader of the established centre-right party, appointed after the long overdue resignation of Antonis Samaras in the aftermath of July’s referendum defeat. Since the party chose not to go straight to a leadership contest, and Samaras’s main rivals agreed to bide their time and let him go gracefully, the most expedient solution was a trusted party veteran, a “safe pair of hands” deemed most acceptable to all party factions; in other words, the lowest common denominator. Meimarakis is ND man and boy, having risen through the ranks of the party youth and served as party General Secretary, he held several ministerial appointments before being elected Speaker of the Parliament. Although popular with a large section of the party faithful, under normal conditions he would probably not even run for the leadership, let alone be elected – up to now he has preferred to operate behind the scenes as a political fixer, most notably for former PM Costas Karamanlis.
Meimarakis’s personal style is unreconstructed Greek male circa 1950, straight out of a black and white Finos Film comedy (although he himself was not born until 1953). He likes to remind people of his Cretan descent (with its connotations of macho gun-toting vendeta-nurturing highlanders), and his upbringing in the Athenian neighourhood of Exarcheia (which may sound “street” today as a gritty anarcho-alternative enclave, but in his time it would have been solid bourgeois residential). He abbreviates his Christian name Evangelos to the more casual “Vangelis”, while his fans and detractors alike refer to him as “Vangelas” (as in “big Vangelis”, altogether more macho).
His bearing is best described by the Greek term μαγκιά (maggiá; there is no direct English translation, but the closest is “swagger”). His speech is slow and his voice gravelly, in the manner of someone who can barely muster the effort to converse. As he speaks, you can almost hear a slow bouzouki intro in the background, building up to a late night rembetiko (this was used to great effect in a recent election spot by ANEL, which portrays him the proprietor of a bouzouki dive with PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata as the female supporting singer – although to be honest it doesn’t take a comic genius to lampoon him). His only other mode is τσαμπουκάς (tsaboukás), bravado, a more aggressive version of his default μαγκιά. His sartorial style underlines his throwback credentials: he sports a deeply unfashionable thick moustache, always wears a lawyer’s suit, and in a noted contrast to Tsipras’s tie-less “City banker on dress-down Friday” look, Vangelas only removes his tie to settle scores in the car park (or the verbal equivanent). For the full look, you would expect the Vangelas action figure to be accessorised with a well-used komboloi (worry beads).
Vangelas is capable of moderating his communication style to appear more centrist, but is really in his element when deploying idiomatic and often colourful language χύμα (unpackaged, like tsipouro) against his opponents on all sides, when he checks in his political correctness with a wink to the coatcheck girl. Many remember his off-the-record veiled threat to members of the press asking him about his alleged involvement in a property scandal, that they should watch out because “when I take off my Speaker’s suit, I start with the trousers” – and worse, in a heated exchange with then ND MP, and current President of the Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos. Outside this context he is rather squeamish about homosexual acts; when asked earlier this week for his views on gay marriage he denied having an issue with it, but added that he would be concerned if it were to be seen as, well, “normal“. He is a master of the casually patronising “old school gent” gesture, as when he welcomed incoming Speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou to her new office with a bouquet. Needless to say, he is not a natural contender for the female vote, but he doesn’t seem to care, and that gives him an appeal among certain older patrician ladies who like “a bit of rough”.
It is hard to think of a close analogue to Vangelas in a western democracy. In the UK you would have to picture the “common touch” of a lawyer for the Krays gone political (or a less needy Alastair Campbell, or a slicker John Prescott). In the US, his populist appeal can be compared to that of George W in the cowboy “smoke’em out” mode he worked so hard to cultivate. Less flatteringly, our contributor koutofrangos is reminded of the rug merchant who accosted us in Instanbul, and his moustache would have made Saddam proud, had he decided to age gracefully and retire the boot polish. In other words, an altogether more “Oriental” image.
With all of this non-verbal messaging going on, though, Vangelas barely needs to open his mouth to make Tsipras look like the wet-behind-the-ears fresh-faced former student activist that he is. Sceptics might attribute the uptick in ND’s poll figures under Vangelas’s leadership to the fact that the man he replaced had all the pasty allure of an undertaker in an ill-fitting suit (that, and having been at the helm when the last austerity package was introduced). It is hard to know how far this unexpected winning streak will carry him. Like an old comfort blanket, he has clearly succeeded in appealing to the “base” and pulling together the ND faithful, including many who strayed to the right (ANEL), but he is unlikely to steal any but the most opportunitistic one-time Syriza voters (read: “undecideds”) to threaten their lead further. If this really is a contest between the establishment and the reformers, it is pretty clear which side of the divide Vangelas falls on; he is preaching to the choir and he won’t bother to pretend otherwise.