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Promises galore for Gypsies
Parties out to woo masses: Pasok and New Democracy hope to draw the country's most disadvantaged and neglected minority to the polls on March 7.
A SO FAR invisible electoral group is attracting the attention of both Pasok and New Democracy party pollsters ahead of the March 7 ballot. Greece's forgotten Gypsies, or Roma, are being pursued by leaders from either side of the political spectrum.
As campaigning shifts into high gear, Pasok leader George Papandreou visited a Gypsy settlement, and his New Democracy rival Costas Karamanlis recruited a famous Gypsy singer. Both candidates hope to win the Gypsy vote. But courting them won't be easy. Gypsies are less likely to turn up at the polls than other Greek citizens. But based on past elections, those who do vote are more likely to pick Pasok.
Greek Gypsies number between 250,000 and 300,000, according to government estimates included in its 2001 Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Social Integration of the Greek Gypsies. A Greek delegation attending a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) the same year, however, said Gypsies number between 120,000 and 150,000. Ask Greek Helsinki Monitor, a group actively defending the rights of Gypsies in the country, and it estimates the Gypsy population to be around 300,000 - 350,000, approximately 3 percent of the total population.
Despite the conflicting numbers, it is widely agreed that more than half of Greek Gypsies live in tents and makeshift shacks at settlements across the country. Many are without running water and electricity.
According to statistics compiled by local and international human rights groups, about 10 percent do not have a Greek identification card and a quarter of those eligible to vote are not registered. One reason for this is that municipalities - in their efforts to drive Gypsies out of their backyards - refuse to register them. Unregistered Gypsies are not only denied the right to vote, they are also deprived of many government services.
'A place in the sun'
In a bid to reach out to Gypsy voters, Papandreou paid a quick visit to the Gypsy settlement at the disused Gonou army base near Thessaloniki. The settlement of prefabricated houses had been inaugurated by Prime Minister Costas Simitis in November 2000 when the government voluntarily moved 2,000 Gypsies there from a nearby squalid camp.
"Gypsies have an equal place in the sun," Papandreou told the Gonou camp residents. "I came here today because it is here that the local society, together with the government and local Gypsy leaders, all worked together. They set up prefabricated homes where there were really miserable living conditions. There is now a health centre. Children are starting to go to school regularly. There is hope for economic improvement."
Papandreou pledged to back similar initiatives "so that Gypsies feel they are truly equal in our country." He said it is "a responsibility we are taking" and a "duty of all citizens to stamp out stereotypes, racist views and to see the person who we want and need."
Papandreou's message was greeted by cheers and applause from a large crowd of Gypsies at the settlement. But it will probably take more than pre-election promises to convince this minority that the ruling Pasok government is indeed determined to improve their living conditions. Greece's Gypsies have grown suspicious of the government's stated efforts to rescue them from poverty.
Big plans on paper
Simitis last year unveiled a whopping 380 million euro assistance programme, partly financed by the European Union. Millions of euros were slated for housing initiatives, such as the construction of new dwellings and the improvement of existing settlements. About 34 million euros was to be invested in education programmes and another 61 million euros in vocational training and employment of 17,000 adult Gypsies. Some 24 million euros was to go towards health and welfare.
The programme has not been fully implemented, and Greece's Gypsies have seen very little assistance from the government. Some human rights advocates claim the ambitious project has been shelved. The Gonou settlement and another housing initiative in Karditsa are two of the very few examples of the government's efforts. Unlawful evictions are common across the country.
Theodoris Alexandridis of the Greek Helsinki Monitor works exclusively with Gypsies. He points to dozens of squalid makeshift settlements in Aspropyrgos, an industrial town northwest of Athens. The municipality of Aspropyrgos is alledgedly driving Gypsies away. The government is criticised for doing little, if anything at all, to reverse this trend.
"Unfortunately, programmes announced by the government have not been successful," said Alexandridis. "There are many Gypsies still living in tents and temporary dwellings [...] Even though the central government seems to want to do something and to spend money on programmes, everything is somehow blocked at the local government level."
ND gets Gypsy singer
Making a play for Gypsies, New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis offered Gypsy singer Vasilis Paiteris a spot on the party's ticket. While the move is an attempt by the main opposition to attract Gypsy voters, Paiteris sees it as an opportunity.
Paiteris has started campaigning in the western Athens suburb of Agia Varvara. He says he sees this as an opportunity to improve the plight of Gypsies. His campaign slogan is "Let's get in parliament."
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