Paying heed to past leaders


Do former prime ministers have a role to play in the present? In my opinion, yes, and an important one too. Because Greeks are fairly immature in terms of political behavior, we tend to knock our leaders off their pedestals with the same passion with which we put them up there to start with, and we are doing so even more fervently now, with the crisis and austerity. This tendency to debase, which goes hand in hand with populism, is why there is little room in Greece for what politically mature systems call true statesmen. As soon as an ex opens his mouth, he is assaulted with reminders of all of his past sins by commentators and the public alike.

The fact, however, is that former prime ministers do have something to give. They have experience, knowledge and know-how that cannot be acquired overnight. For example, we are now learning that Richard Nixon, despite the inglorious end to his career, advised a number of his successors. Here in Greece, few will pick up the phone and ask for help from someone older and savvier. Costas Karamanlis didn’t do it when he succeeded Costas Simitis, and George Papandreou didn’t ask for advice from Simitis or Karamanlis when he became prime minister. And since this is a country where the memory of each administration dies at its exit as we have poor records and a fluid public administration, everything needs to be relearned from the start every time. I am certain that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would have avoided a lot of mistakes if he had talked – behind closed doors – with a few of his predecessors before starting negotiations with the country’s creditors.

The other issue is what we should expect from former leaders themselves. What is missing here in Greece, what would make a real difference, is some self-criticism and a sober analysis of what needs to be done. We are looking for answers – from Simitis as to why he didn’t crack down on corruption or why he didn’t implement the social security reforms he had in mind; from Karamanlis, why he lost fiscal control and couldn’t rein in his ministers; from Papandreou, why he took so long to take action and why he didn’t avoid the involvement of the International Monetary Fund in the Greek bailout; and from Antonis Samaras, who lost his courage and focus after the European Parliament elections and why he reverted to an old style of governance in so many areas.

Is this asking too much? I don’t think so. These are all people in whom the Greek people put their trust and honored with their vote. The least we can do now is demand answers about the things that caused so much pain and provocation. Maybe 10 or 20 years from now we will see a truly modern prime minister, with a different mentality, who will invite his successors to the table to discuss the country’s biggest problems.