A Greek Tragedy Portends Greek Drama for Political Stage in Cradle of Democracy

Greece’s state apparatus faces doubts on capacity to respond to crises.

AP/Vaggelis Kousioras
A man walks into floodwaters to deliver medicines to a relative after the country's record rainstorm, at the town of Palamas, central Greece, September 8, 2023. AP/Vaggelis Kousioras

ATHENS — Greece’s turbulent summer journey, scarred by wildfires and floods on a biblical scale with only a brief interval in between, came to a hard fall’s landing with a maritime tragedy that shocked the country and is likely to generate political fallout for months to come. 

While the center-right New Democracy party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last June, this string of catastrophes — some man-made, others not — has eroded the public’s faith in the capacity of the Greek state to manage crises and clouded confidence in the government. 

That discontent is spreading ahead of regional and local elections slated for next month.

At the port of Piraeus — the biggest in Greece — 36-year-old Antonis Kargiotis tried to board a large ferry boat to Crete at the last minute last Tuesday, and was then pushed off the vessel’s loading ramp into the sea and drowned. Compounding the tragedy, Kargiotis reportedly was autistic and did not know how to swim. Four members of the Blue Horizon ferry — the captain, first officer, boatswain, and deck officer — were charged with manslaughter and relevant maritime law code violations. Two of those crew members were jailed on Monday pending trial. 

As a country with a proud maritime heritage, from the ancient Athenian navy to smashing up Ottoman Turkish ships in its war of independence, Greece was reeling from both the callousness of the act and apparent lapses in port safety measures. The incident has gripped the Grecian press and triggered days of what one Greek newspaper called “pan-Hellenic rage.” 

In a social media post, Prime Minister Mitsotakis stated that a “combination of irresponsible behavior and cynicism, contempt and indifference” led to the man’s death and that “the shameful incident is not indicative of the kind of country we want.”

Yet some of that anger was already reaching high levels of the prime minister’s governing conservative New Democracy party. The powerful minister of shipping and maritime affairs, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, came under fire for making remarks that appeared to sympathize for the miscreant crew members as well as the victim. Mr. Varvitsiotis tried to walk back those comments but the public’s indignation did not recede: On Monday, he tendered his resignation. 

Will other resignations follow?

As a Greek newspaper, Kathimerini, reported, the rescue response to the floods that resulted from torrential rains that hit parts of Greece between Tuesday and Thursday was negligible until early Thursday, while people were clinging to the roofs of their stricken homes. That fed criticism of state and local authorities’ ability to cope with natural disasters. On Saturday, the governor of Thessaly, Kostas Agorastoros, was jeered by enraged locals when he visited a town affected by the floods and had to be evacuated. Mr. Agorastoros, a member of New Democracy, is running for a fourth term.

New Democracy controls 11 of Greece’s 13 regions, but the party’s lock on regional representation is looking less certain by the day. 

The floods followed a summer of record-high temperatures that exacerbated a brutal fire season. The Alexandroupolis and Evros fire that broke out last month scorched more than 200,000 acres of land, mostly forest, making it the largest fire in the EU on record. In July, a wildfire on the popular holiday island of Rhodes burned out of control to the extent that some 19,000 people had to be evacuated by land and sea. 

The flames were finally doused and tourists were quick to come back, but the images of thick smoke and tourists fleeing the island by boat did not convey the kind of publicity picture any tourism-dependent country wants.

The three days of torrential rains that caused an inundation of the agriculturally rich Thessalian plain and parts of central Greece this month caused at least 15 deaths and the drowning of hundreds of sheep. The damage is estimated at more than $2.5 billion, and Mr. Mitsotakis has called on the EU to provide significant financial support. 

The swift resignation of Mr. Varvitsiotis may be a bitter pill for Mr. Mitsotakis, but it is political honey for his most vociferous rivals on the left, notably those from Syriza, which has been described as a left-wing populist party. A former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, stepped down from the party’s leadership in the wake of its poor performance in the polls last June, but a new likely contender has emerged for that role. At only 35, the fresh-faced Stefanos Kasselakis is already taking aim at the establishment. 

In an editorial for the newspaper Ta Nea last week, Mr. Kasselakis wrote that “the news for our country is not good. Our forests are burning, our cities are flooding, our people are being murdered in cold blood. The only ones who pretend not to see the disaster are increasingly limited to the Prime Minister’s narrow circle.”

As that circle narrows, Mr. Mitsotakis looks to have a very full plate on his table as the hot Greek summer drifts toward a blustery fall.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use