PASOK: 30 years since it came to power: Then and now

As a young Reuters correspondent, I lived and worked in Greece under Andreas Papandreou (?epi Andrea Papandreou?).

Further north, that expression might sound rather odd. I would not now say, for example, that I live in London under David Cameron. Of the various factors that shape my life, David Cameron?s whims and fancies do not seem all that important. But in Greece in the 1980s, we all lived under Andreas Papandreou. His face filled our streets and our television screens. There was a joke about a newcomer to Athens, trying to learn Greek by watching television; he came to the conclusion that the words ?O prothypourgos Andreas Papandreou…? (Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou) must mean ?Good evening, here is the news??

At election time, Papandreou?s supporters filled Syntagma Square and all the central avenues of Athens. I learned the word ?laothalassa? (sea of people). ?Mazi sou, Andrea, yia mia Ellada nea? (With you Andreas, for a new Greece), they cried, as though he was a personal friend of each one of them. Even when other parties held rallies, Papandreou was on everybody?s mind. One of the funnier street slogans from New Democracy, recalling the prime minister?s lack of military service in Greece, was: ?En-dyo, en-dyo, o Andreas sto strato? (one-two, one-two, Andreas in the army).

Papandreou?s every word, every gesture was followed eagerly, and mostly with approval. When Andreas marched out of a European summit, because aid to the Mediterranean was nowhere on the agenda, he was marching for the nation. His complexes were the nation?s complexes. When he snubbed some junior State Department official, or withdrew from a NATO exercise at the last moment, he was making the nation?s feelings clear. So it seemed.

In general, politicians divide into those who confront the nation with unpleasant truths, and those who make citizens feel better by fostering pleasant illusions. The latter is not always a bad thing to do; most people cannot live on a diet of hard, cold truth — they sometimes need to have illusions and dreams. Constantine Karamanlis the elder was a politician of the first kind, Andreas Papandreou of the second.

Andreas Papandreou?s supporters loved him because of one illusion in particular. He told them that the colonels? dictatorship had been entirely ?xenoferto? (imposed from abroad). This implied that there was no need for anybody in Greece (apart from a guilty handful of officers who were already in prison) to examine his conscience and ask how the dictatorship had managed to function so smoothly for seven years. ?Kala paidia eimaste oloi, oi kakoi einai stin fylaki? (We are all good guys; the bad guys are in prison?).

If the causes of Greece?s problems were mainly external, then the solution was wonderfully simple: All Greece needed to do was stand up to the bad foreigner, shake its fist in a convincing way, and then it could live happily. This came as balm to many Greek ears, and it neatly avoided the need for any real self-examination by Greek society.

One memorable saying about Greek politics in the 1980s came from the singer Dionysis Savvopoulos. He said there were two political camps in Greece: the Western, represented by New Democracy (its liberal wing, at least), plus the KKE ?esoterikou? — and the Eastern camp, consisting of PASOK and the Greek Communist Party (KKE). It was true that PASOK in many ways resembled an old-fashioned communist party — with its cult of Papandreou?s leadership, its closed-door meetings of the central committee, the shadowy power struggles of an executive committee (almost a Politburo), the dramatic expulsions.

If the traits of a ?Western? party include a minimum of transparency, predictability and accountability (in government policy as well as party affairs), then the PASOK of those days certainly lacked those traits. But its rhetoric touched some deep chords. I vividly remember the PASOK Congress of 1984, when Papandreou served up a diet of vulgar Marxism, or rather vulgar Marxism-Leninism, to a spellbound audience. The Soviet Union was not a capitalist country, so it could not be an imperialist country, unlike the United States, which was the metropolis of imperialism. Delegates roared their approval. Meanwhile, American diplomats discreetly begged their compatriots in the press not to give too much emphasis to this outburst. ?You know he doesn?t really mean it…,? they said. And in a way the diplomats were right. Behind a smokescreen of thunderous rhetoric, Papandreou?s government was giving the Reagan administration most of what it demanded, including an assurance that the American bases would function on a secure legal basis as long as they were needed. There was a lot of airy talk about making the Balkans a nuclear-free zone, but no move to remove the nuclear weapons which America kept in Greece. Papandreou enraged his Euro-partners by preventing them from issuing a joint condemnation of the Soviet downing of a South Korean airliner. But nobody in Washington minded very much what the European Community did or did not say. When the Europeans grew weary of Greek demands for a better economic deal in Brussels, the metropolis of imperialism quietly lobbied in support of the Greeks. Imperialists come in handy.

About halfway through my stay in Greece, it suddenly occurred to me that if Papandreou and his party really meant what they said about ?national popular unity? (?ethniki laiki enotita?) and countering the deadly American threat to humanity, there was nothing — in international law at least — to stop them putting these words into action. They could close the American bases unilaterally, renounce American military aid, leave NATO, and stop buying American weapons. Of course there would be a heavy price to pay: The nation would have to make huge economic sacrifices, and adopt a national defense policy similar to Switzerland or even Albania. It would amount to a strategic gift to Turkey.

But in theory, that course of action was perfectly conceivable, and it would have had the virtue of principled consistency. Then I realized that in their sober moments, Greek voters did not have the slightest appetite for the sacrifices that such a policy (or even a few, cautious steps in that direction) would have required. Almost all the players in the public game (Papandreou, the Americans, most Greek voters) understood and accepted what was really happening: Furious rhetoric was providing a smokescreen behind which the main elements of Greece?s strategic relationship with the West were being consolidated, not destroyed.

That does not mean that Greek-American relations were always publicly stormy but privately idyllic. There were real crises as well as phony ones, especially over terrorism and hijacking. But even as PASOK-controlled television lauded the Sandinistas and their battle with ?ultra-rightist mercenaries? (?akrodexious misthoforous?), the government never denied the Reagan administration anything that it badly wanted.

Here again, Papandreou was offering something very attractive to the electorate. His implied message was that Greece can have it every possible way: It could taunt and insult the Americans, while at the same time demanding (and to a remarkable extent, getting) a steady flow of military aid and even diplomatic support. It could flaunt its independence (?I Ellada apektise dikia tis foni? — ?Greece has gained its own voice?) while surrendering large areas of policy (from macroeconomics to environmental regulation) to Brussels, at an attractive price.

What voter, you might ask, would ever say no to the idea that the country can have things both ways, or every way — no hard choices, plenty of gain, no real pain?

The trouble is that reality does eventually intrude. Living with a complete disconnect between rhetoric and reality, and fostering the illusion that life never involves hard choices, is not a stance that any nation, or any individual, can maintain for ever, as is now painfully obvious.

Comparing today?s Greek politics with those of the 1980s, I find that a striking role reversal has taken place.

PASOK had become a more-or-less Western party, New Democracy has some Eastern features which it cannot easily shake off. A Papandreou has become a teller of hard truths, shattering the illusions which a Karamanlis had fostered.

* Bruce Clark is the international security editor of The Economist. This article was contributed to Kathimerini’s special section on the 30th anniversary of PASOK’s first election win (October 18, 1981).

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