George Papandreou: A restoration drama

The king is dead. Long live the king. Costas Simitis has stepped aside for George Papandreou. Maybe we should say the regent is stepping aside for the now mature prince? Or is the king stepping into the shadows to act as regent for a prince whom he still does not trust? In any case, we now have another Papandreou playing a leading role in our politics. And the situation over the past two weeks has had all the exotic situations, bombast and exaggerated characterization that defines the tragedies and tragicomedies of another great period – the restoration of the English monarchy under Charles II in 1660-1685. As we have no dramatists of note these days, we have to look to politics for our drama. It may be hackneyed to note that George Papandreou is set to lead the party that his father founded, and that he will be the third Papandreou to become prime minister if the party is re-elected, following in the footsteps of his grandfather George and father, Andreas. But the observation of the political dynasty is no less pertinent for being stale – nor is the fact that his opponent in the elections will be Costas Karamanlis, nephew and namesake of the founder of the conservative New Democracy party. However, things are not so simple. George II, who has been elected to Parliament since 1981, will next month become the third leader of PASOK, which his father founded in 1974 and lead until his death in June 1996, when Costas Simitis, already prime minister, took over. Now Simitis is handing over the reins to the founder’s son. Papandreou, the foreign minister, brings back to the struggling party the legitimacy of his name, with its mythical connotations. This, more than any as yet unannounced policy changes, has given rise to great optimism in the party. It is as if a tail wind has arisen because of Simitis’s self-sacrifice. There is strange drama at play here, with many peculiar twists and ironies. Apart from the name, there would appear to be very little in common between George II and Andreas. The son is soft-spoken and moderate, almost always seeking consensus and continually singing the praises of multiculturalism and peace on earth. He is like a school valedictorian, ready to say the right thing and carry any burden for the common good. He is self-effacing and sincere, he gives the impression of someone who has to work hard to get the job done. Andreas Papandreou, on the other hand, was a brilliant and mercurial character, whose great charisma made him the dominant politician of his generation. Unfortunately, his insecurity (and, one would dare say, his laziness), made him take the easy road, relying on populism and nationalism to harness the adoration of a large part of the population that would have followed him anywhere even if he had asked for sacrifices. Although his lasting legacy is the more even distribution of wealth that created something close to a middle class across the country (and not only in the cities), Andreas will also be remembered for the ease with which he squandered the capital of his popularity and European funding, leaving Greece in a big hole of debt by the end of his first eight years in power in 1989. (The fascinating thing is that Greek politics are full of second acts. In 1993, when he returned as prime minister, Andreas, like a latter-day Moses, set the country on the path of fiscal responsibility that allowed Simitis to lead Greece into the eurozone.) Although eight years have passed since his death, Andreas Papandreou has remained PASOK’s figurehead, its touchstone. As voter fatigue grew, Simitis’s growing circle of critics harked back to the time of Andreas’s populist sway over the voters. In the iconography, Andreas Papandreou is presented as the great democrat and man of the people. And yet, Andreas was the recipient of far more favorable treatment because of his name than was his son. Andreas Papandreou was forced to leave Greece after being jailed for Trotskyite activities in the late 1930s. But he managed to become a professor of economics in the United States and even served in the US Navy. In the early ’60s, through his father George’s intervention, conservative Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis invited Andreas to head an economics research foundation in Greece. From there, Andreas’s political career took off, and he became a leading light in his father’s Center Union party and government. Because of his strong anti-US, anti-NATO and (sometimes) anti-European stance, often to the detriment of Greece’s relations with its allies, no one today accuses Andreas of being under American influence nor of being the recipient of outrageous political favors. And it is the legitimacy of the Papandreou name that has prompted the PASOK party to summon George to try to restore its flagging fortunes ahead of the elections that will be held on March 7. On the one hand, Papandreou is the undoubted beneficiary of the power of his name. But on the other, we must note that it is not his name alone that has made him one of the most popular politicians in Greece, if not the most popular one. And we must remember that, as foreign minister, Papandreou has taken risks that would once have appeared impossibly dangerous, such as gambling personally (with support from Simitis, of course, and with able assistance from key aides) on an improvement of ties with Turkey and all of Greece’s other Balkan neighbors. In a field filled with populist landmines, George Papandreou has presented an image of Greece in Europe and abroad that is sensible, modern and moderate – the total opposite of the clumsy obstructionism of his father’s time in power which was aimed solely at stoking passions in Greece. His gentle, non-confrontational manner and easy style have helped make George Papandreou the front runner in opinion polls and led to his uncontested bid for PASOK’s presidency. In short, George Papandreou is now set to lead PASOK both because of his name and the hard work he has put in to create a political persona that many people would like to see in power. And Papandreou knows that he has to build on the legitimacy of his name by gaining the legitimacy of an election from the broadest possible pool of voters. That is why PASOK will amend its charter at an extraordinary congress on February 6 to allow the election of its new chairman by grassroots members and as-yet indeterminate «friends of PASOK» two days later, instead of having congressional delegates elect the leader. Papandreou has immediately begun to present himself as a candidate for a much broader political sphere than that contained within PASOK alone. He knows that his pedigree is the subject of both privilege and prejudice and he has to use the benefits right away to minimize the dangers. But something as wishy-washy as voting by «friends of PASOK» runs the risk of undermining the very legitimacy he seeks. Once in power in the party, and, if PASOK wins the election, as head of the government, Papandreou will have to show that he can govern. This, of course, applies to Karamanlis as well, who has had the benefit of leading his party since early 1997 but not of being in government for most of the past 20 years (Papandreou started off as deputy culture minister in 1985). In both cases, we can only repeat the wise old Greek saying, that it is when he rules that you get the measure of a man (or woman, we might add). And this raises an interesting point in the Papandreou story. George is not only the son and grandson of prime ministers, but he is also the son of a renowned peace activist and feminist, Margaret Papandreou. The American-born Mrs Papandreou is a powerful personality whose liberal influence on Greece’s politics and society in the past few decades could be the subject of a fascinating book or PhD dissertation. Mrs Papandreou has armed her son (one of four children) with principles that have stood him in good stead, but she could also be viewed as a liability if she is seen to be advising him in an extra-institutional way – something that Papandreou’s enemies have tried to play up before. The easy part is now over. Simitis, whom George Papandreou backed in his bid to become party leader in 1996, has now handed over PASOK, in what the prime minister called a bid for renewal and an effort to win the elections. This is a fascinating experiment in politics. Now the difficult bit begins. First of all, Papandreou will have to create a current of interest, a momentum that can eat up New Democracy’s 8 percent lead in the poll. He will have to establish himself strongly in the party, not flinching from crushing the expectations of hardliners who will have backed him simply because of the mystique of his name. He will have to temper his mild manners with hard decisions, and present details and reforms rather than feel-good sentiments. Greek politics are as tough as they come, but whoever wins the next elections must know that the enemy is not the other party but the monster that lurks in the public administration, and the interests that feed off the State at the expense of the rest of us. Whoever slays this beast will gain a legitimacy greater than any of his predecessors. And if a leader such as Simitis has to step aside for the good of his party, his successor will have to prove himself every day. Because in politics, unlike a play, no one knows the end until it comes.

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