Can Europe Make It?

Greece: how deep does this River run?

On the eve of the Euro elections, Can Europe make it? talks to Stavros Theodorakis (founder and leader of The River – Greece’s newest political party) and Nicholas Yatromanolakis (campaign manager and MEP candidate) about the silent majority, politics beyond parties, and Europe’s disconnect. Interview.

Stavros Theodorakis Nicholas Yatromanolakis Alex Sakalis
22 May 2014
Party leader Stavros Theodorakis (left) and MEP candidate Nicholas Yatromanolakis (right). Demotix/Nikos Angelakis. All rights r

Party leader Stavros Theodorakis (left) and MEP candidate Nicholas Yatromanolakis (right). Demotix/Nikos Angelakis. All rights reserved.

Just when you thought Greek politics could not get more interesting, along comes a new party to shake up the already volatile Greek political scene. To Potami (The River) was founded on March 11, 2014 and within one month had exploded to third position in the national polls. It remains in third place with a recent poll putting them on 10% of the vote as we go into to the European elections.

Founded by the widely respected, well liked television journalist Stavros Theodorakis, To Potami tries to offer an alternative to a divisive and corrupt Greek political establishment by introducing people from a wide range of backgrounds as party candidates. Their impressive list of candidates for the upcoming Euro elections includes doctors, farmers, philosophers, nuclear physicists, artists, engineers and one chess grandmaster. Stavros Theodorakis is party leader, but he is not running for the European parliament this time as he says his English is not yet good enough to be an MEP.

This is a political party, but also a political movement that seeks to put an end to corrupt, careerist politics through transparency, and a strong emphasis on bringing politics as close as possible to the people.

openDemocracy (oD): How would you describe To Potami?

Stavros Theodorakis (ST): To Potami wants to build an innovative political platform. This is a movement that wants normal people to step forward, people who have nothing to do with ministries and party chiefs. We are talking about normal people, not statists that pretend to be leftists, or fascists that pretend to be in favour of the people. “To justify their actions, they changed the meanings of the words they used,” said Thucydides. To Potami is a “life jacket” which will allow normal people to emerge into the limelight - whether it will be small or large is for the public to decide with their vote.

Nicholas Yatromanolakis (NY): We are a clear pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-reform, pro-social and civil rights party. We represent a big chunk of Greeks who have remained silent so far, but who are now emerging in an attempt to break the vicious cycle of Greek partisan politics, the financial crisis, corruption and nepotism, and offer a reliable alternative that is based on sustainable development, meritocracy and inclusivity.

oD: What made you think To Potami up?

ST: I used to lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling and thinking that it might be OK just to be an investigative journalist on TV. I truly believe that journalists bear great responsibility in our societies. Everyone should try their best: I have always tried my best to work for the common good. But somehow that wasn’t enough for me, and I frequently ended up sleepless.

Why? Because the political elite, even in the current crisis, continue to look out of place. They remain within a cage of obsolete words that they have neither the ability nor the courage to escape. What we want to do first is to shake them out of their lethargy. From there on, we will see how we measure our forces. I have already said that if I fail, I will return to journalism. And if on the other hand, I succeed, I won’t be a burden for the people for more than eight years.

oD: And what inspired you to join To Potami and stand as a candidate for that party, Nicholas?

NY: I studied Political Science at Panteion University in Athens and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. My heart was always set on politics, yet I chose not to get involved, until To Potami. I worked in the academic and private sector and carefully avoided any party affiliation.

Greek political parties are unreliable, clinging to past ideologies and to people who have been around for far too long. Both ND and PASOK (the governing parties) and SYRIZA (the main opposition party) base their strategies on fear; they don’t offer a realistic glimpse of the future. They are part of the problem presenting themselves as part of the solution... and that can’t happen.

Last summer I got the chance to return to the US, travel across the country and meet some inspiring policymakers. That experience reminded me who I am and what’s important. This coincided with some preliminary discussions with Stavros, whom I knew personally. I shared his vision and became part of this initiative from day one.

oD: What is the alternative that To Potami offers?

NY: To Potami offers a clean slate and a voice of reason. Steering away from professional politicians that put their self-preservation first, it offers common sense solutions alongside ground-breaking reforms that could change the political landscape for the better and enable Greece to return to a growth trajectory.

Between a government that says “anything goes” financially and promotes a socially conservative agenda and an opposition that rejects everything, we aim to offer a reliable alternative.

oD: Your party seems to have drawn a lot of support from former PASOK and DIMAR supporters....

NY: Honestly, I can’t understand why any person my age would vote for PASOK. It is a party strongly mired in a lot of past misdeeds, with a leader who doesn’t hesitate to blackmail voters to vote for him or else.

oD: But where exactly do you fit on the Greek political axis?

NY: The left-right axis is not a useful tool for policymaking in the twenty-first century. The terms have been abused for so long anyway. The S in PASOK stands for socialism for example, but is PASOK a socialist party? Is meritocracy a left or a right wing term? What about fiscal responsibility? Is it leftist or rightist? These terms are redundant.

We are against populism, as expressed by last minute pre-election offerings made by the government or empty promises made by SYRIZA.

oD: So what is your platform for the Euro elections for?

NY: We are supporting a more just Europe through a series of key institutional reforms that would target the existing democratic deficit and in particular an intergovernmentalism that often circumvents the EU.

We want to increase accountability. Furthermore, we want to bridge the broadening gaps that are emerging across Europe, (poverty, unemployment, racism, immigration, North-South) through common EU policies that would target these issues. We want to have more but also a better Europe.

oD: And you are against the IMF/Troika-imposed austerity measures...?

NY: Look, as a country, we brought the financial crisis down on our own heads, through wrong choices, an inefficient state, a lax control mechanism, incapable and frequently corrupt politicians and so on. The EU response was too little too late and the crisis exposed its inadequacy to handle such cases, as well as reflecting the internal conflicts brewing among EU members.

The memorandum between the Greek state and the Troika included, among other things, some essential reforms that should have been in place a long time ago, but because of certain circumstances, the implementation of these reforms has not been successful. The focus of both the Greek government and the Troika has been on just the numbers, resulting on swathing horizontal cuts and poorly thought-out strategies, instead of focusing on the state’s long-term sustainability and effectiveness.

oD: Would you consider going into a coalition government with any of the other political parties?

NY: It’s too early and therefore, I believe, irresponsible to enter into such a discussion at this point. Furthermore, I have a feeling that the political landscape is going to shift considerably as a result of the European elections, so I’d wait for the dust to settle.

oD: To Potami was founded just two months ago, and yet you are already polling as Greece’s third largest party. Are you surprised by this success?

NY: Yes and no. It was evident that there was a huge void in the Greek political scene. Greek citizens are disappointed with the existing parties and there’s an obvious disconnect. They feel that the old parties through their actions or their inertia led the country to where it is today. To Potami is a party that covers this void and gives hope to people that something good and honest can emerge. Furthermore, our ballot has 42 strong candidates from all walks of life. All of them are qualified to represent Greece in the European Parliament.

oD: You must be pretty happy though, Stavros?

ST: It doesn’t matter whether we are happy or not. What really matters for all, and above all for us, is whether we really understand the responsibility that the Greek people invested us with as soon as we appeared on the political scene.

I would like to think that we do grasp this responsibility, not by being arrogant about what we think is said about us today, but for where we are going to stand tomorrow. And this is exactly why we care. We aim to get as close as possible to the ruling parties, in terms of votes. This is the only way to force cooperation, not by making them swallow a bitter pill, but instead by introducing a quite new model of governance.

oD: What is the future of To Potami? Do you worry that the more popular and successful you become, the more likely it is that you become part of the status quo?

NY: The future of To Potami lies solely in the voters’ response. We are not going to stick around if people don’t feel that we’re adding any value to the Greek political system. We don’t expect to go into retirement as politicians, which means that we actively encourage and genuinely desire the constant renewal of our team, contrary to today’s stagnant Greek politics. This will keep a constant check on us in turn, and that’s a good thing.

ST: We said from the outset that what we wanted to do was to put forward candidates who combine knowledge, experience and spirit. People who carry expertise in their field.

And this, we have already done. Our candidate list consists of people who, although pretty diverse, share common principles and a passion to bring change to the country. Just check their CVs and you will understand the reasons why this country is desperate to leave this corrupt political paradigm behind it and return to normality.

oD: Do you think your new way of doing politics could be exported to other countries. Do you imagine chapters of To Potami opening up in Germany, France, the UK etc?

NY: To Potami is a political start-up. It has a sound basis and all the potential to grow. The idea is simple and it responds to a universal need: to show that politics doesn’t have to be the way it is today, and to get disenfranchised voters back to the polling booths.

Low turnout across Europe throughout the years showcases the disconnect that exists between political parties and the people, enabling anti-Europeanism and extreme ideologies to gain ground. There are already a lot of Europeans who are concerned and want to do something about it. We’d welcome the opportunity to work together with them, provided that we share these same values and principles.

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