Greek train accident puts conservative government in a bind

By Diego Saez Papachristou

Athens, Mar 6 (EFE).- The railway accident that killed 57 people last week in central Greece has changed the country’s political situation in the runup to the general elections sometime in the coming months, eroding potential support for conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

“At this time, many people are not thinking politically. What they’re doing is feeling. As the days pass, the feelings will give way to a public conversation about who is responsible for the accident,” Nikos Marantzidis, a professor of political science at the University of Macedonia, told EFE.

Thus, he said, “the coming days and weeks will be crucial” for Greece’s political situation.

A few hours after the accident, Mitsotakis spoke about a “tragic human error” as the cause of the crash.

However, since then thousands of Greeks have taken to the streets to demand security and safety on public transportation and to complain that the state is responsible for not having modernized the country’s railroad network, which lacks automated control systems.

Mitsotakis on Sundy had to retract his earlier statement and apologized to his countrymen for the poor state of the railways.

“I owe everyone, and especially the victims’ relatives, a big apology, both personal and on behalf of all who governed the country for many years,” Mitsotakis wrote on Facebook.

“In 2023, it is inconceivable that two trains move in different directions on the same track and no one notices. We cannot, we do not want to, and we must not hide behind the human error,” he posted.

So far, just one person, the train station chief at Larisa, who was manually controlling the traffic on the rail line where the crash occurred, has been indicted in the tragedy.

“The theory according to which the accident was caused by human error does not seem to convince people, and so we’re seeing that all these demonstrations are so massive,” Maratzidis said.

This is not the first crisis to envelop Mitsotakis, whose government has been on the ropes for months over a scandal involving the illegal wiretapping of politicians, journalists and the country’s top military command.

However, the accident could be a much more telling blow for conservatives.

“Apart from the dramatic nature of the loss of so many lives, the tragedy is undermining one of the government’s main narratives: that despite all the problems that have surfaced it is a government of efficient technocrats,” the expert said.

In 2018, when the current leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras, was prime minister, a huge forest fire in the town of Mati, near Athens, claimed the lives of 103 people.

At the time, Mitsotakis accused the leftist Tsipras government of negligence in evacuating the zone and warning residents of the danger, and he promised that if he were elected he would create an efficient civil protection service and a state that could guarantee the safety of its citizens.

The rail tragedy not only undermines the premier’s credibility due to the accusations he launched against Tsipras but also complicates his own plans regarding when to schedule the elections, which before the accident were to have been held, most probably, on April 9.

However, that day now would coincide with the memorial Masses to be held for the victims of the accident, which the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates 40 days after a death.

And if the government opts to set the balloting for sometime in May, that would provide more time for the debate to broaden about who is responsible for the crash and for the opposition and civil society to lay the blame at the government’s doorstep due to the bad shape in which the railroad infrastructure finds itself, Marantzidis said.

Before the accident, the governing conservative New Democracy party was leading in the voter surveys by 7 pct. over the leftist Syriza.

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