Greek leader faces political backlash after rail crash

By Nektaria Stamouli|Politico

Greek leader faces political backlash after rail crash

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was supposed to be preparing to call an early election — instead he’s dealing with protestors throwing Molotov cocktails at police as a wave of public rage convulses Greece following a train crash that killed 57 people.

Last week’s train collision was caused when a freight train and a passenger train were allowed on the same rail line. The station-master accused of causing the crash was charged with negligent homicide and jailed Sunday pending a trial.

The crash has raised deeper questions about the functioning of the Greek state, following reports that Athens hadn’t updated its rail network to meet EU requirements and that the state rail company was accused of mismanagement.

Mitsotakis initially blamed the incident on “tragic human error” but was forced to backtrack after he was accused to trying to cover up the government’s role. The first political victim was Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who resigned soon after the accident. Mitsotakis put out a new message over the weekend saying: “We cannot, will not and must not hide behind human error.”

“As prime minister, I owe everyone, but above all the relatives of the victims, a big SORRY. Both personal, and in the name of all those who have ruled the country for years,” Mitsotakis wrote on Facebook.

His conservative New Democracy party is now weighing the political implications of the crash.

Before Tuesday’s deadly event, it was widely expected that the government would hold a final Cabinet meeting where it would announce a rise in the minimum wage. Mitsotakis would then dissolve parliament, with the likeliest election date being April 9.

But that’s now very uncertain. If the April 9 date slips away, alternatives range from a first round vote later in April, May or even July.

“Anyone who hinted to the prime minister these days that we need to see what we do about the elections was kicked out of the meeting,” government spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou told Skai local TV. “It is not yet time to get into that kind of discussion.”

Instead of election plans, the government is dealing with a massive outpouring of public rage at the accident that has seen large protest rallies and clashes between demonstrators and police.

“When a national tragedy like this is underway, it is difficult to assess the political consequences,” said Alexis Routzounis, a researcher at pollster Kapa Research. “Society will demand clear explanations, and a careful and discreet response from the political leadership is paramount. For now, the political system is responding with understanding.”

Opposition parties have so far kept a low profile, but that is starting to change.

“Mitsotakis is well aware that the debate on the causes of the tragedy will not be avoided by the resignation of his [transport] minister, but becomes even more urgent,” the main opposition Syriza party said.

Before the crash, New Democracy was comfortably ahead of its rivals, according to POLITICO’s poll of polls.

That lead came despite a growing series of problems, including high inflation, skyrocketing food prices, financial wrongdoing by conservative MPs, a wiretapping scandal and reports of a secret offer by Saudi Arabia to pay for football stadiums for Greece and Egypt if they agreed to team up and host the 2030 World Cup.

“The government has managed to weather previous crises, including devastating wildfires in 2021 and the recent surveillance scandal, while suffering only a minor impact to its ratings,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-founder of risk analysis company Teneo.

He added that the government is now scrambling to ensure it’s not hurt politically by the crash.

“It is following a similar strategy in wake of the train crash, with Mitsotakis playing a central role in establishing the narrative and swiftly announcing action aimed at getting ahead of the story,” Piccoli said.

Missed warnings

People are especially outraged because the tragedy appears to have been avoidable.

The rail line was supposed to use a modern electronic light signaling and safety system called ETCS that was purchased in the early 2000s, but never worked.

Even the current outdated system was not fully operational, with key signal lights always stuck on red due to technical failure and station managers only warning one another of approaching trains via walkie-talkie.

The rail employees’ union sent three legal warning notes in recent months to the transport minister and rail companies asking for speedy upgrades to railway infrastructure.

“We will not wait for the accident to happen to see them shed crocodile tears,” said one sent on February 7.

In mid-February, the European Commission referred Greece to court for the eight-year delay in signing and publishing the contract between the national authorities and the company that manages rail infrastructure.

Last April, the head of the automated train control system resigned, complaining that trains were running at 200 kilometres per hour without the safety system.

The government even voted to allow Hellenic Train a five-year delay in paying any compensation for an accident or a death, while EU rules call for a 15-day time limit. The company said on Sunday it would not use the exemption.

On Monday, Mitsotakis met with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and she pledged that Brussels would help Greece “to modernize its railways and improve their safety.”

All of that is grim news for a party aiming to win a second term in office.

“Historically, when the state, instead of stability, causes insecurity, it is primarily the current government that is affected, but also all the governing parties, because the tragedy brings back memories of similar dramas of the past,” Routzounis said.


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