The parliamentary election in Greece on Sunday is being closely followed internationally for its implications on the European Union. But in some circles there’s a more personal reason: Americans are on the ballot.
Sotirios Vahaviolos, who was born in Greece, is one of them.
He is the CEO of the Mistras Group—a Princeton, N.J.-based company, named after his home town in Greece, that makes diagnostic equipment for businesses such as oil refineries.
Vahaviolos describes himself as a “dear friend” of Antonis Samaras, the president of the conservative New Democracy party, but sees himself as an adviser, whose experience in business and engineering give him authority in matters of job creation.
Ninth on a ballot where only the top few stand a chance of being elected, Vahaviolos’ position is an honorary one. Nonetheless, he will be in Greece for the election, speaking to party leaders in Athens as well as potential voters in his home district outside Sparta.
Artemis Papadatou, also born in Greece, of New York will be making a parallel trip, as the eighth name on the ballot for the socialist PASOK party. Unlike Vahaviolos, she was selected precisely because she is an outsider—a 29-year-old architect with no political experience.
She recalls waking up at 6 a.m. to a call from the secretary of the PASOK party’s president.
“We want you to represent the young generation,” she remembers being told. “Bring in the new and out with the old.”
(Posters of the leaders of Greece's conservative New Democracy party line the walls of its temporary New York headquarters at the FormaGlass construction company in Astoria, Queens. Stan Alcorn for WNYC)
The election is what many consider to be a referendum on the austerity conditions Greece accepted in return for a 130 billion euro bailout, and could determine whether the country becomes the first to leave the 17-nation EuroZone.
The country has been ruled by a caretaker government since last month, when efforts to form a government following a divided election failed.
(Photo: Sotirios Vahaviolos (left) is the CEO of the Mistras Group, on the ballot for the conservative New Democracy party. Artemis Papdatou (right) is a 29-year old architect from New York, on the ballot for the center-left PASOK party. Credit: Mistras Group/Stan Alcorn for WNYC )
“I think it’s the most important vote of the last 50, 60 years,” Xenia Varsos, a volunteer for the New Democracy party in Astoria. “We need a government right now. It’s like a country without a government, and this is very sad.”
Not everyone thinks putting Greek ex-pats on the ballot signals a real openness to new ideas.
“I wish that was the reason, but I don’t think that is the reason,” said Apostolos Zoupaniotis, editor of the Astoria-based weekly Greek News. “There is a powerful system [in Greece] that has a mind of its own.”
Instead, Zoupaniotis believes that it is a symbolic gesture.
“Because of the great number of Greeks living abroad, the parties want to show that they care about them,” he said.
In the past, PASOK and New Democracy went further. They had offices in Astoria, and they paid to fly thousands of Greek citizens in America back for elections. This year, due to the financial situation in Greece, that’s impossible.
“How can it happen? Who has the money to do that?” asked Varsos. “They don’t have money even to have an office.”
Instead, the New Democracy party has a banner that hangs over the sign for FormaGlass—Varsos’ construction business. There are posters of party leaders on the walls, but schematics of buildings on the desks.
Without flight subsidies, and with ticket prices in the thousands of dollars, Zoupaniotis estimates only a few hundred Greek citizens will make the trip back for the election.
Among them are Vahaviolos, Papadatou and Varsos, who paid some $1,700 to fly back and volunteer in the final days.