ATHENS – While Greece’s mainstream politicians, afraid of being harangued and flush with $40 million in taxpayer cash for campaign expenditures, have mostly remained indoors preaching to party faithfuls ahead of the May 6 election, smaller parties and challengers are resorting to a cheaper way of reaching voters: networking through the Internet, a method used by now U.S. President Barack Obama four years ago when he was just a candidate.
The traditional ruling parties of the New Democracy Conservatives and their bitter rival PASOK Socialists are using traditional campaign methods, although this time they’ve been afraid to venture into the public eye until a few days before the vote. Meanwhile, savvy techies such as George Palamarizis have been busying getting little-known parties before the electorate, although Greece has the lowest rate of Internet usage in the European Union because many Greeks, apart from the young, have been reluctant to try anything new.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Palamarizis outlined how he’s using the Internet and a website to promote the Democratic Left, an offshoot of PASOK. There are 32 recognized parties campaigning and a number of them are using the same technique. The Democratic Left though, has consistently been in the top three of voter support, driven in large part by Palamarizis and his staff of two. Smaller parties, cut out of the funding the ruling parties in Parliament hoard for themselves, are instead going right in voters’ homes and living rooms and bedrooms and offices to get their message out.
“It was obvious from the beginning that without money and access to the traditional media, we could only make our opinions and proposals known with new media, the Internet and social media,” 44-year-old Palamarizis told AP amid a desk covered in cables and screens gadgets, but no paper, unlike the old-fashioned posters glued to telephone poles being put up by bigger parties. That has helped transform this election into a free-for-all that could see as many as 10 parties in the 300-member Parliament, double that of the previous government, including a hodge-podge of Communists, Nazis, Nationalists, Leftists, Rightists, and Centrists, raising the likelihood of another coalition to rule Greece’s troubled economic state.
Palamarizis said he has a simple formula: constantly upload new material and update the database of party members and “friends” and never use spam that will get wiped out of a user’s inbox. “People have understood that we won’t bombard them with info they don’t need…we only target friends and members of the party. They can pass our message on if they want,” he said.
Democratic Left supports keeping Greece in the Eurozone, unlike some other parties furious over austerity measures that have cut pay, raised taxes and slashed pensions, and is headquartered in a run-down area in central Athens, located between two vacant stores and across the street from a row of brothels. Its no-frills online campaign is suited to the country’s harsh economic conditions, AP noted.
Major parties have conducted mostly members-only indoor rallies or organized outdoor events carefully orchestrated to themselves. They’ve made sure there are plenty of police to keep the peace and prevent their leaders from being spattered with eggs or yogurt, which is a favorite of protesters. And with Greek law requiring TV stations to set aside time for only the recognized parties, smaller groups are fighting back with free attacks on the Internet.
While Greek TV has been limited to what analysts said is trite, hackneyed speeches, online debate has been raging with videos and with interactive participation with voters who are asking tough questions that mainstream politicians are trying to avoid with carefully-scripted appearances where they want to dodge voters.
“We’ve seen these elections being dominated by the Internet,” Stefanos Loukakos, country manager in Greece for the Internet giant Google, told AP, citing a major shift in online habits since the 2009 election. “People spend less time reading newspapers and watching TV. In the past couple of years, Greece has been bombarded with news blogs and news sites. The crisis and the elections in particular have a very high interest among users.”
Google’s Greek operation, Google.gr, set up an election platform with local news site protagon.gr, featuring interviews, debates and party-produced material. “We’ve had a very high interest, with more than a million visitors in the first couple of days and more than 300,000 video views, without even advertising,” Loukakos said. “The crisis has actually increased usage of the Internet, and the reason is very simple: people are going out less, staying home more, and are using the Internet to search for deals and get their news.”
The spread of Internet usage to older Greeks and swift growth of smartphones — now making up 20 percent of cellphones used in Greece, according to Loukakos — have also helped. It all makes the traditionally dominant parties also keen to exploit the cheap new campaigning methods.