Athens — POLITICIANS from the birthplace of democracy are flocking to its most successful outpost to learn how to run an election campaign. The birthplace: Greece. The outpost: the United States.
This learn-from-America craze began in earnest during the 1984 US presidential campaign, just in time to use the techniques for Greek parliamentary elections due by this fall.
Now Greek voters, whose favorite public pastime is talking politics, are becoming victims to polling, direct mail, computer lists, video commercials, and other campaign devices already well worn in the US.
A delegation from the opposition New Democracy Party met with aides of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan last year. The Greek strategists hired a top US political consultant, David Sawyer, to advise them in new campaign techniques. For the first time ever, an autonomous campaign committee composed of party members and outside consultants was set up.
``We have not gone to America to be told what the Greek people want -- we know better -- but to listen and watch and learn,'' comments Stephanos Manos, director of the new campaign committee of the New Democracy Party. ``In this manner we hope to maximize our resources by, for example, better using the leader's time.''
``Believe it or not,'' asserted a young member of Parliament involved in the campaign planning, ``before now no one coordinated the party's various speakers or what message they delivered. There was little sophisticated advance work; we had little control over the means and timing of releasing our message to the press; we had no permanent speech writers.''
In a country where the official campaign lasts only a month and where the two big parties are, according to recent polls, separated by less than 3 percentage points, organization looms as a key element in the next election.
By all accounts the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) is a seasoned veteran in the techniques of modern political campaigns.
After returning from exile after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, Andreas Papandreou used the knowledge acquired during his 20 years as a United States citizen and political activist in the American Democratic Party to build a formidable, up-to-date political force, the likes of which were unknown in Greece.
Using American political consultants, a modern political machine with offices in every village, and the latest technologies, Papandreou ascended from 13 percent of the vote in 1974 to a landslide election in 1981, ousting New Democracy.
During that campaign, Greeks witnessed for the first time a full-scale, coordinated, American-style television campaign.
``If nothing else,'' says a source close to the prime minister, ``Papandreou has forever changed Greek politics. The mass rallies and balcony politicking will always be part of our political culture, but you will no longer see parties as a loose coalition of political patrons. They are simply no longer competitive.''
New Democracy had failed to follow Pasok's lead, relying instead on the charisma of then-Prime Minister Constantine Caramanlis and long experience in government to carry it to victory.
``New Democracy's defeat in 1981 was regarded by most party members as an aberration, a temporary desire for change,'' says John Loulis of the Athens-based Center for Political Research and Information. Mr. Loulis, who as a political consultant plays an important role in helping New Democracy adopt and adapt to the new politics, points out that the party's loss in last June's elections for the European Parliament ``shocked the party into realizing it had to change.''
Under the old way, New Democracy conducted polling by gauging the response at mass rallies.``In effect Pasok succeeded in getting out the silent majority, while New Democracy was attracting the noisy minority,'' said Mr. Loulis.
Last September's election of a new party chief, Constantine Mitsotakis, has helped bring greater momentum to learning modern campaign techniques.
After complaining for years that Pasok had sent ``green guards'' (green is Pasok's color) to the countryside to intimidate voters, New Democracy has finally caught on and opened offices of its own everywhere in the country. The party has bought computers to help in this organizational effort and to help with other hitherto ignored activities, such as coordinated fund raising and direct-mail efforts.
To counter government control of television -- ``We are completely locked out,'' grumbles Manos, ``even Mitsotakis's major addresses are sometimes ignored in the news'' -- news media consultants have been hired to produce videos of party activities, speeches, and other relevant material. These will be distributed to party offices around the country and an attempt will be made to show them in every village.
``In effect we are creating our own television,'' says Sotiris Papapolitis, a member of Parliament and a party spokesman.
Perhaps the most important change brought from America is the sophisticated use of polling.
``In the past, polling was never used to outline strategy, to determine priorities,'' says Mr. Manos.
Before Pasok began to modernize Greek politics a decade ago, parties relied on members of Parliament who acted as patrons in their districts to get out the vote and national party resources were spent with little sophisticated planning.
``For the first time, New Democracy has used the data to identify swing districts,'' asserts Loulis, who does much of the party's polling analysis. ``This will help the party better use its financial and human resources and at the same time eliminate an advantage Pasok has enjoyed for a long time. But of course this does not mean the advice and experience of local politicians will be ignored. The good in the old and the new must be fused.''
``We had lost touch with our electorate,'' points out the young member of Parliament, ``but now we know a lot more, thanks to our new approach.''
He says that the party's main slogan for the European Parliament elections -- ``apallaghi,'' which means ``riddance'' (of Pasok) and was a play on Pasok's slogan ``allaghi,'' which means ``change'' -- turned voters off.
For years, says campaign committee director Manos, the party had allowed itself to be drawn into ``wasteful'' foreign policy debates.
``The polls told us what some of us believed all along: that the electorate couldn't care less about foreign policy except in times of crisis,'' he says. ``They are interested in unemployment, inflation, and even something as complicated as the country's foreign debt.'' As a result, although party spokesmen comment on foreign policy issues, they have recently concentrated their attack on domestic matters, in particular the economy.
``Pasok realizes that the next election will be tougher,'' says a pro-government analyst. ``The prime minister's own modernizing reforms have forced the opposition to modernize and that will make it more difficult.''