With austerity polices entering their sixth year the difficulties facing Greece's coalition government partners trying to run an election campaign when money is short and their rising unpopularity makes public rallies next to impossible has grown exponentially. Last night's under the radar appearance by the prime minister, Antonis Samaras in the second largest city, Thessaloniki served to underline this. With little advance publicity, the New Democracy stealth election campaign came to town and in front of an audience of 1,200 party die hards Samaras set out one of his latest public appearance before polls open on Sunday.
How times have changed for a politician and a party that in the past could attract crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, especially here in a city of 1.2 million that has been, till recently considered one of its strongholds. Sad to see the leader of a nation of 11 million talk before an audience that is smaller than the number of people who follow me on Twitter. Of course, inside Pavilion 13 the thousand or so attendees were made to look much more impressive as wire-borne cameras waltzed above our heads, avoiding at all costs wide shots. Flags waved, the youth wing chanted out slogans in tempo to the whims of their political handlers and the crowd dutifully clapped when required.
Actually, I had no intention of attending the event which I assumed would be an invitation only affair in which the media (or, in my case, not-quite-media) would be kept at arms length. However, following the lead of some friends who were there legitimately, I managed to get myself past the metal detectors and security checks, which was lucky as I would have had a hard time explaining the gas mask in my bag. I'm guessing that telling the police my allergies were playing up would not have been terribly convincing.
However, once inside the venue I decided to exploit my good luck to get into the swing of things taking pictures of the local conservative nomenclature which has ruled Thessaloniki for generations, noting the preparations being made ahead of the main speech. If only New Democracy paid as much attention to economic policy as it did to the placement of flag waving party workers in the bleachers.
And the crowd went wild! The arrival of the prime minister produced a wave of hysteria as loyalists pushed forward to kiss the the hem of the party leader, imagine a Justin Bieber reunion concert 30 years from now and you'll get an idea of the composition and mood of the audience. Unlike PASOK whose party rallies could be mistaken for a pensioner outing, New Democracy does have supporters below the age of forty, but how many of them are there to show their support for a better, more market-orientated Greece and how many are New Democracy youth wing careerists with an eye on a place in the civil service is hard to tell.
Once on the podium Samaras immediately launched into attack mode, tearing apart Argentina's recent economic track record, which seems a trifle off topic till you remember that many in the opposition a few years ago used Argentina as an example of how Greece could uncouple itself from a larger currency (in Argentina's case the US dollar) and survive.
Then it was onto cruder attacks on the main opposition party SYRIZA, which included the claim that the party was "planning to flood Greece with illegal immigrants", take the country out of NATO and that they would destroy the economy if they ever got into power. This went down well with ultra - conservative audience who lapped it up with abandon, a reminder that Golden Dawn have no monopoly on prejudice or fear mongering.
Samaras is well aware that despite its hammering at the hands of the pro-government media after the murder of activist Paulos Fyssas Golden Dawn still poses a potent threat to New Democracy's share of the vote. Hence the claims that only New Democracy can stop the Reds stealing your homes and bank accounts, only a strong conservative government can prevent foreign hordes from crossing the borders and swamping the Fatherland.
For anyone familiar with Samaras's political past this comes as no surprise, for while he has remoulded himself as a free - market, neo-liberal conservative, scratch the surface and you can still the ultra-nationalist rabble rouser who made a name for himself in the 90's. In times of trouble and electoral doubt his first instinct is always to go further to the right and rely upon dog whistle issues such as immigration, Macedonia (FYROM) and fear of communism to whip up support from an ageing party base. The Iron Curtain may have fallen in 1989 but for New Democracy old school types this was just a respite from the ever present Red Menace.
Speech over, the prime minister surrounded by secret service agents slowly made his way through a throng of party loyalists stopping every metre or so to shake hands or exchange good wishes. In this tightly controlled bubble, surrounded by friendly faces and even friendlier media outlets, it would be easy to imagine that the good old days for New Democracy are still here, but beyond Pavilion 13 and the security cordon manned by platoons of riot police Greece's second largest city seems to be indifferent to his charms.