Cash-strapped Greek parties jump on social media bandwagon

John Hadoulis
Supporters of Greek conservative party New Democracy distribute flags prior to a pre-election speech of their leader Antonis Samaras in Athens. Out of cash and shunned by disillusioned voters fed up with austerity, Greek parties are turning to social media to get their message across ahead of Sunday's national elections

Out of cash and shunned by disillusioned voters fed up with austerity, Greek parties are turning to social media to get their message across ahead of Sunday's national elections.

Party accounts on Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially since the last electoral battle in 2009, a trend reflecting the difficulties of the campaign rather than Internet use in Greece which is still among the EU's lowest.

"The economic crisis was a key cause of the switch to social media," says George Pleios, an associate professor of communications at Athens University.

"There is little money for television ads, leaflets and letters, and a broad category of politicians hesitate to come into direct contact with the public. In fact, some find it difficult to even go out on the street," he told AFP.

Around 40 percent of Greeks use the Internet compared with 80 percent in Britain, says Pleios, and the parties have had to learn in a hurry.

"People have made it a habit and we have to be present," says Ilias Natsios, a social media manager for a socialist candidate.

"Previously, politics on Facebook was for show, the main interest was to show off how many 'friends' you had. Now it is used as a channel to express anger or doubt," he said.

US-born former prime minister George Papandreou was regarded as an oddity for years for maintaining personal social media pages.

The election's frontrunner, the conservative New Democracy party, was absent from social media sites when the last campaign was fought in 2009, says Dimitris Ptochos, the party's head of new technologies, innovation and research.

Now Ptochos has 20 volunteers trawling the Internet and an unidentified number of so-called party friends lending a hand.

As anger towards salary and pension cuts spikes, New Democracy and the Pasok socialists -- who have ruled Greece for the last 38 years and are now in a coalition -- have found it best to keep critics at a safe distance.

Last month, the socialist development minister was booed at a tavern while the finance minister who oversaw Greece's first austerity drive in 2010-11, socialist George Papaconstantinou, recently said the cuts had brought him "huge" personal and political cost.

"I cannot go out among the public and have a coffee with my wife," Papaconstantinou, now environment minister, told Skai television last month.

Most political parties are also deeply in debt and cannot afford the lavish rallies of the past, when thousands of supporters were flown in from the countryside to beef up party events in Athens, Thessaloniki and other main cities.

Gone too are the massive electoral kiosks of previous campaigns, equipped with video walls, sound systems and free Internet access.

Earlier this year, the interior minister said Greek parties owed banks around 245 million euros ($321.8 million). Some have used future earnings as collateral for new loans.

Several new parties have emerged in the last two years, Greece's most traumatic period since the restoration of democracy three decades ago.

One of the new arrivals, the nationalist Independent Greeks party formed by dissident former conservative Panos Kammenos, owes much of its existence to Facebook and Twitter.

A former junior shipping minister and self-styled terrorism expert who vehemently opposes the EU-IMF recovery plan for Greece, Kammenos takes time to blog with supporters and swat down critics.

"You are a mud-slinger," he tweeted in April to a user who claimed that Kammenos had demanded a state apartment during his short government term. He then 'blocked' another man who taunted his spelling skills.

"Social media unbuttoned a new reality, it gave people the opportunity to speak (to candidates)," said Spiros Rizopoulos, head of the Athens-based public relations company Spin Communications.

"Whether they end up going to cast a vote is a different story.... Don't expect that because politicians work social media like crazy, people are going to open their arms to them," he said.