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Athens Mayor Up Against Socialists

October 8, 1998

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ There are a few more trees in Athens, some stretches of smooth sidewalk, a car-free shopping zone and one quite comfortable mayor.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former diplomat now running city hall, has built a wide base of support by doing what his predecessors could not: appear to tame Greece’s unruly capital.

Now, there’s another giant challenge. The powerful Socialist party wants him out.

The outcome of the mayoral race _ part of nationwide municipal elections on Sunday _ is being closely watched as a possible bellwether for even bigger stakes in the future.

Avramopoulos is widely expected to win, and victory could be his final stepping stone to a shot at the leadership of the main opposition New Democracy party. New Democracy, which has been in power only three of the past 17 years, is led by the less charismatic Costas Caramanlis.

But an upset victory by challenger Maria Damanaki, of the governing Socialist party, could prove a crippling blow to Avramopoulos’ image, turning him from potential savior to pariah among conservatives.

``In these four years, Athens has begun to regain its lost appearance, to obtain an identity, to strengthen its international authority, to undertake initiatives, to be more clean,″ Avramopoulos said as he campaigned for a second term under the slogan ``The Battle for Athens.″

Ms. Damanaki, a well-known political activist, says Avramopoulos is trying to turn Athens into ``Disneyland,″ and his politics lack true depth. He ignores ``the wounds of the capital,″ Ms. Damanaki said at a rally in central Athens.

Ms. Damanaki has canvassed far-flung neighborhoods and made rounds of speeches. She has yet to confront Avramopoulos face to face.

The mayor has chosen to make no public campaign appearances and has put out only a few banners. A huge sign in Athens’ main square promises to give the homeless the money saved by not campaigning.

In the homestretch, Avramopoulos seems unstoppable. Some voter polls give him more than a 3-to-1 edge over Ms. Damanaki, the voice of the student uprising against the 1967-74 military dictatorship.

Avramopoulos’ strength also offers a possible lesson to other politicians in Greece, where scant attention has been paid to quality-of-life issues in the frenzy to modernize.

Athens has grown five-fold in the past 30 years _ mushrooming from a cozy city around the Acropolis to a smog-choked metropolis that is home to half the country’s 10.2 million people.

Across the country in the 900 mayoral and 187 other local government elections Sunday, the outcome will serve as a litmus test for Premier Costas Simitis’ harsh austerity policies aimed at getting Greece into the European Union single currency group by 2001.

Conservatives have waged strong mayoral campaigns in key cities such as Pireaus and could unseat Socialist incumbents.

Still, the Socialists still seem capable of easily winning national elections in 2000. That could set up a chance for Avramopoulos to grab the opposition leadership and challenge the Socialists in 2004, when Athens hosts the summer Olympic Games.

Avramopoulos refuses to publicly discuss his long-range political goals, preferring instead to concentrate on pushing visible changes.

He created a new flag for the city, hired municipal police with bright uniforms, built nearly 20 water fountains, planted trees and replaced sidewalks. A pedestrian shopping district opened this year.

He has erected Europe’s tallest Christmas ``tree″ _ actually strings of lights attached to a pole _ and hosted hundreds of cultural events.

Critics, however, accuse him making cosmetic changes without first dealing with the underlying problems of a city grown too big too fast.

``Surely the changes are impressive,″ said Athens historian Sarantos Kargakos. ``They remind me of the ornaments we put on graves in cemeteries. ... The real Athens is sinking and this mayor is preparing an appropriate funeral.″

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