ATHENS (Reuters) - Journalist-turned-politician Stavros Theodorakis is shaping up as a possible kingmaker after Greece’s general election.
In a campaign fought between the main forces in Greek politics, opponents and supporters of the country’s international bailout, Theodorakis refuses to take sides and describes his centrist To Potami party as “post-bailout”.
A fortnight before the Jan. 25 vote, To Potami lies third in most opinion polls, behind the anti-bailout Syriza and the ruling conservative New Democracy party, which has imposed tough austerity policies demanded by Greece’s EU and IMF creditors.
To Potami’s support in a poll published this week was 4.5 percent, just ahead of a group of other smaller parties. While this is far behind the two main groups, it represents a remarkable placing for a 10-month-old movement.
It also means To Potami could become the crucial ally after an election that may give neither Syriza nor New Democracy a parliamentary majority.
“We want Potami to be the force that will pull the biggest party in the right direction and ensure we have neither far-right policies nor anti-European policies,” 51-year-old Theodorakis told Reuters in an interview.
To Potami’s fast rise underscores the disgust many Greeks feel towards an established political order which they blame for having driven the country close to bankruptcy, leaving it dependent on aid from the European Union and IMF.
Unlike new anti-establishment parties - such as Spain’s Podemos and Italy’s Five-Star Movement - that have cropped up during southern Europe’s crippling downturn, To Potami urges moderation. It staunchly favours Greece staying in the euro, and wants to reform the public sector and the political system and create jobs.
The prospect of To Potami becoming a centrist ally of a Syriza government, which at current levels of support is likely to win the election but without the majority needed to govern alone, could also help to temper concerns among investors and other EU governments.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras wants to cancel the austerity terms of the 240 billion euro (187 million pounds) bailout and renegotiate Greece’s debt obligations, raising fears of a default and a potential exit from the euro.
Speaking at his Athens headquarters, Theodorakis said he would welcome being the balancing force in a government led either by Syriza or New Democracy, should Prime Minister Antonis Samaras hold on to power.
But he said To Potami would insist that either party get rid of their inner circle of longtime aides in favour of new faces. “We would tell Syriza that we must have a pro-Europe policy. Euro membership is not up for debate. We’d tell New Democracy: stay away from populism and far-right policies,” he added.
New Democracy has been accused by the opposition of moving further to the right in recent years by making a crackdown on illegal immigration a priority.
Theodorakis said his party offered moderation as Greece became increasingly polarised. “Greeks want to see if there is an alternative solution in this political system ... They want a fresh start with new, untainted people but they are also insecure about rejecting the old guard,” he said.
Theodorakis is a household name in Greece, known for pensive documentary-style interviews of migrants and prime ministers alike. Last year, he quit journalism to found To Potami, and gained quick success, partly by occupying ground vacated by the near collapse of PASOK, the once ruling socialist party, in the past two years.
Snapping up followers from left and right, Theodorakis won more than six percent of the vote in his first electoral test, European elections in May. He has gained support voters who are angry with the political class and want change, but not at the expense of Greece leaving the euro.
Theodorakis said that, if part of a new government, he would push foremost for the creation of new jobs to ease unemployment that stands at 25.8 percent. “We will try to give incentives through different taxation, less bureaucracy, through our relations with the EU and other countries for exports,” he said.
Theodorakis refuses to portray himself as pro- or anti-bailout, the lines along which the rest of the political order has split. “We are post-bailout. There is a new era in Greece and we are a post-bailout party,” he said.
“Greece still has some obligations and must fulfill them, we agree,” he said. “We must replace the bailout with a patriotic action plan which includes our country’s obligations towards our European peers.”
He wants to reverse cuts to the minimum wage, the current level of which he describes as “absurd”, and seek debt relief including a grace period for debt servicing. This puts Theodorakis closer to Syriza’s camp, but he also echoes the pro-bailout stance of insisting that Greece fulfill its obligations and avoid a clash with its European partners.
“The big battle in the country is not the bailout at this point,” said Theodorakis. “The big battle now is whether we will stay in Europe and whether we will make changes.”
Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Deepa Babington; Editing by Alessandra Galloni and David Stamp