CORFU, Greece: In a Greek society turned on its head by a devastating six-year economic meltdown, a 50-year-old former star journalist has become the country’s newest political celebrity.
And Europe is taking note.
In just two months, the startup To Potami (The River) party founded by Stavros Theodorakis is already ranked third in the polls ahead of May’s European Parliament elections.
“I created To Potami because I felt asphyxiated as a citizen,” said Theodorakis, who previously ran an investigative report series for Greece’s powerful private TV channel Mega.
“I was not happy and I feared for the future of the country. I could feel that a lot of people were looking for something new,” the 30-year journalism veteran told Agence France-Presse.
Theodorakis said he has “stolen” ideas from both the right and left for his party manifesto. He wants the euro and environment-friendly investment. He opposes cuts to social budgets. And he said there is a limit to how many undocumented migrants Greece can keep within its borders.
The fledgling party polls at between 8 percent and 14 percent, behind the radical leftist Syriza party and the conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. To Potami aims to score double digits in May and elect at least three Euro members of parliament (MPs).
But the unexpectedly strong start has spawned speculation that the party is secretly backed by Theodorakis’ former media employers to stem the rise of the anti-austerity Syriza party. Theodorakis bristles at such talk.
“To Potami is clean. I will leave if anybody finds something dirty,” he told a television station in Corfu on Wednesday during a two-day campaign trip.
He insisted that the money raised so far—some 70,000 euros ($97,000)—has come from supporter donations and from his own pocket.
“Greek parties can spend 20,000 euros on a public gathering. We are a low-budget campaign,” he said.
The party operates from a small office in Athens—itself donated by a supporter—and the campaign mainly runs online.
On the trail, he holds small open-air meetings, fielding questions from a few hundred people each time.
On Corfu, speaking to about 300 people in front of the island’s Venetian fortress, he had to contend with biting wind and a Champions League match about to start on television.
“I could vote for him,” said Olympia Mantzourogianni, a 32-year-old teacher who attended the gathering.
“But I would like more specific positions on issues such as education and health,” she said.
Theodorakis freely admits that the European ballot is but a step to national elections, which are likely to be held by February.
“I had no money [for national elections]. I will get the money if To Potami enters the European Parliament and qualifies for funding,” he told reporters in Corfu.
Theodorakis is fronting Eurodeputy candidates with a proven record in their respective fields—such as business, medicine or academia—who have never held political office.
He himself is not standing for election this time.
He recently visited Brussels for introductory meetings with the European socialists, liberals and greens.
Although personally a leftist, Theodorakis refuses to reveal his party’s ultimate political affiliation until after the European elections.
“We will forge alliances with different people each time so that things can change a little in the direction of a more just Europe,” he said.
In person, Theodorakis conveys that he is cut of a very different cloth from the mainstream, often pompous Greek political class.
He dresses simply, speaks informally and carries everywhere a large backpack containing his laptop, newspaper clippings and fresh fruit.
The backpack—which easily weighs four kilos—has become something of a calling card for Theodorakis and could even help raise party funds.
“We will definitely be releasing [To Potami] backpacks for the national elections,” he said.
His earthy background is also very different to that of the average Greek party leader. Theodorakis is dyslexic and grew up in a poor western Athens district with a large Roma community.
“The Roma are Europe’s oldest minority, and the most unfairly treated . . . and they deserve more attention,” he said.
“Certainly, [Roma] children should be educated and women are not slaves to be beaten . . . but they are entitled to keep their identity. If they want to live in tents instead of flats, they have that right,” he added.