By Stavros Lygeros
The debate between incumbent Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his Socialist rival George Papandreou was not a test of political superiority or oratorical skill. It was but a key stage in the election campaign and must be evaluated as such.
Before the debate, PASOK had a steadily growing advantage and Karamanlis had the opportunity to use his rhetorical skills to at least curb, if not overturn, its lead. Karamanlis really needed to wow the public, whereas Papandreou needed only to make sure he made it through the process without suffering any serious losses.
Objectively, the advantage was in PASOK’s court. Papandreou did not need to apologize for the “sins” of his predecessor Costas Simitis because the party had already been punished when it lost the elections to New Democracy in 2004. This allowed him to focus on the present. The prime minister, in contrast, needed to apologize for an administration that has fallen far short in results and whose moral image is tarnished. In other words, this was a good opportunity for Papandreou to beat his rival hands down, but expectations were low because of his well-known weakness at oratory and in debate. This is why PASOK was so pleased with what was effectively a tie between the two party leaders. Now PASOK will be heading to the polls with a relatively clear advantage but, as anyone who watches soccer knows, a win is one thing and qualifying is quite another.
Karamanlis needed to own the debate if he was going to have any real impact on public sentiment. He failed to so because he kept to a stale style of oratory. What used to be seen as charisma and strength came across merely as arrogance. And even though he may have won on points, this is just a small consolation for New Democracy because it is very doubtful whether it will translate into any boost at the polls. It’s not even clear that it will help Karamanlis suffer only the narrow defeat that would allow him to remain at the helm of the party with some shred of political dignity.