Stavros Theodorakis poised to play pivotal role in Greek politics

The young Greeks crowding open-air cafes around Athens' Agia Irini square mostly ignored Stavros Theodorakis, leader of the centre-left To Potami (The River) party, as he handed out campaign leaflets on a mild January evening.

A rumpled former investigative journalist and television chat-show host whose 10-month-old party is contesting its first general election, Mr Theodorakis does not necessarily inspire confidence among some voters.

"I've watched his programme but I don't know much about his politics," said Anastasia, a 20-year-old literature student sipping hot chocolate. "Should we take him seriousIy?"

But while he may lack a presidential air many observers believe the moderate, staunchly pro-European Mr Theodorakis is now poised to become a pivotal figure in Greek politics. If, as opinion polls predict, the anti-bailout Syriza party under Alexis Tsipras wins Sunday's election but falls short of an outright majority then To Potami could emerge as a coalition partner.

Some are already banking on it as a best hope to pull Syriza back from a potentially disastrous confrontation with Greece's eurozone partners over its flagging bailout programme and demands for a debt write-off.

"Once Tsipras realises the constraints he faces, To Potami could provide a useful alibi for having to moderate his anti-austerity policies . . . It's perhaps the best outcome under the circumstances," said one analyst who declined to be identified.

Such an outcome would conclude a remarkable rise for a man who only entered politics last year and who has sought to conspicuously distance himself from Greece's old guard. Mr Theodorakis until recently sported T-shirts, military jackets and trainers on the campaign trail - a departure from the slick suits favoured by most Greek politicians.

The son of a policeman, the 51-year-old has volunteered to support Roma education efforts - a worthy but unfashionable cause in Greece - and seldom misses an occasion to voice the public's frustration with a system long dominated by two parties.

"Theodorakis isn't part of the old system and To Potami has some good candidates," said, Alecos, a young computer technician also sitting in Agia Irini. "I wouldn't underrate them."

Mr Theodorakis says he is willing to co-operate with Syriza but would not personally join a government led by Mr Tsipras, the party's firebrand leader. "Our co-operation wouldn't be about sharing out cabinet seats. We're prepared to be supportive only on the basis of a clear policy agreement," he told the Financial Times.

But To Potami's leverage will depend on whether it can win third place in the election, squeezing out the struggling PanHellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) under Evangelos Venizelos, the foreign minister, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.

An opinion poll published on Thursday showed To Potami consolidating its position in third place with 5.1 per cent, followed by Golden Dawn with 4.6 per cent and Pasok with 4.1 per cent.

"There seems to be a trend towards a tactical vote for To Potami to prevent the Golden Dawn coming third and getting a mandate," one pollster said. "That's seen by voters as an unacceptable outcome in a democratic country."

In addition to confirming To Potami as a serious player, third place would give Mr Theodorakis a chance to try to form a coalition government himself under a constitutional procedure that provides for mandates to be handed in turn to the three largest parties entering parliament.

"If we receive a mandate we'll make some dynamic suggestions to shake up the system," he said.

Much like Beppe Grillo in Italy, Mr Theodorakis used his fame as a television personality to launch his political career. But after soaring to double digits in early opinion polls, To Potami won only 6.6 per cent of the vote at the European parliamentary elections last May, leaving even his supporters wondering whether such a loosely organised party would be able to establish a nationwide voter base.

Such fears receded as To Potami gradually built support among centre-left voters dissatisfied with Pasok but reluctant to embrace Syriza because of its hardline stance towards Greece's European partners.

It helps that Mr Theodorakis has succeeded in attracting candidates to run for election in Athens who are seen as proven opponents of clientelist politics and corrupt administrative practices.

Among them is Haris Theoharis, the former director of a supposedly independent state revenue collection office, who resigned last June after coming under pressure to reduce the tax burden on businesspeople close to the government.

"I'm trying to help," Mr Theoharis said. "To Potami supported me during my departure [from the revenue office] . . . I feel they have put reform of the public sector as a number one priority - the mother of all reforms."

Antigone Lyberaki, an economics professor at Athens Panteion university and To Potami candidate, switched sides after an unsuccessful run for mayor of Athens last year with Drasi, a small liberal party. Drasi has recently thrown in its lot with To Potami.

"To Potami is a party that's completely different from all the others. It doesn't have any political baggage," Ms Lyberaki said. "It consists of normal people who have real jobs . . . This makes a huge difference to voters."


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