By Harry Papachristou
PIRAEUS, Greece (Reuters) - Best known as owner of Greece's most successful soccer club, shipping tycoon Evangelos Marinakis has now burst on to the political scene - and has already scored an early victory.
The Olympiakos FC president's unusual foray into politics has taken the port town of Piraeus by storm. A candidate from an independent list co-founded by Marinakis has won the first round of mayoral elections, even though it was set up just four weeks ago, and the tycoon himself is running to become a councilor.
Rarely has big business mingled so openly with politics in a country where contacts between the two are usually conducted behind the scenes.
Shipowners have usually kept a very low profile as they enjoy a preferential tax regime that has created thousands of shipping jobs in Piraeus, but made them unpopular with average Greeks whose tax bills soared in the economic crisis.
Marinakis's success, in many ways, reflects disillusionment among Greeks toward a discredited class of party politicians they blame for pushing the country close to bankruptcy.
Marinakis, 46, is running on the "Piraeus, Winner" ticket, promising to revive his home town and create badly needed jobs with the same business acumen that helped Olympiakos to win 12 out of the past 14 Greek soccer championships.
"I was born and raised in Piraeus," he told To Vima newspaper. "I care about Piraeus. We are fighting for the port of our hearts."
His promises go down well in Piraeus, which suffered badly during the six-year debt crisis even though it is home to hundreds of shipping firms doing business across the world and is one of the world's biggest passenger ports, where tourists board ferries to the Greek islands.
It is also a time of uncertainty for the port which is due to be privatized under the government's program to turn around the economy, despite opposition from Marinakis and fellow shipowners.
Marinakis's critics say he represents a new trend of magnates using their wealth to win political office with the intention of defending their business interests. Some compare him with former Italian prime minister and media boss Silvio Berlusconi, who has faced similar accusations.
"This is a new kind of fruit in our politics and it's a very dangerous one," said Panos Skourletis, spokesman for Greece's main opposition party, the radical leftist Syriza.
For now, Marinakis is prevailing. His candidate for mayor - former club spokesman Yannis Moralis - won the first round last weekend with 33 percent of the vote and looks likely to beat the government-backed incumbent in Sunday's run-off.
"It's a good thing he is running, it's about time we tried somebody who comes from outside politics," said Alexandros Nanopoulos, who sells magazines for 3 euros apiece on the street a few meters (yards) from rows of luxurious yachts at the port.
"JOB FOR EACH CITIZEN"
Marinakis is chairman of Capital Product Partners, a firm listed on New York's Nasdaq stock market which runs a fleet of tankers and container ships.
He says he has no time to be mayor and laws on owning offshore companies would prevent him from doing so anyway.
But he is the public face of the ticket, campaigning alongside Moralis in the port and making television appearances. However, he is quick to deny any national ambitions. "I can't become and I won't become a Greek Berlusconi", he told To Vima.
Despite the mega-yachts moored at its marinas, Piraeus has suffered economically as much as elsewhere in Greece, where unemployment hit a record 27.7 percent last year.
Tapping into the local frustration, Marinakis has promised to turn Piraeus into a shipping hub that creates "a job for each citizen". To back up his pledge, he points to the success of his football team and business savvy.
His sporting credentials are a big advantage in a country where soccer is hugely popular, despite being riddled with corruption and fan violence. A giant poster of Moralis hangs from Olympiakos's stadium, which also features prominently on the mayoral campaign's television spot.
Another independent list led by a former soccer club president in the central city of Volos also topped the first round there, with voters ignoring their would-be mayor's lifetime ban from team sports for match-rigging.
"OUT OF THE SHADOWS"
Marinakis's decision to run in Piraeus was announced a few days before the privatization agency received initial bids for a majority stake in the city's port authority OLP.
He and other local shipowners strongly oppose the sale, which has drawn the interest of China's Cosco and five other suitors. Piraeus's mayor has a seat on OLP's board.
"Powerful interests have come out of the shadows to wrest control of our city and its port," said Theodoros Dritsas, Syriza's candidate for mayor, who failed to make the runoff.
Greece plans to sell a majority of OLP to a single international investor, but shipowners say they want the port to stay in public hands or be split into several small concessions.
"Selling the port is a tragic mistake," Marinakis told the Alpha television channel.
His fans don't buy the critics' arguments. "He's already a successful businessman," said Nanopoulos, the street vendor. "He doesn't need the mayor's chair to defend his interests." ($1 = 0.7297 Euros)
(Editing by Deepa Babington and David Stamp)