13th Apr 2024


George Papandreou – the phoenix of Greek politics?

  • George Papandreou is no firebrand but has a better address book of progressive left politicians and thinkers than anyone else in Europe (Photo: PES)
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As dynasties go there are few to match the line of Papandreous, who have been at the heart of Greek politics since before the first world war.

Now the latest in this long line, George Papandreou is making one the most audacious come-back bids in recent European politics.

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  • PASOK leader Fotini "Fofi" Gennimata died of breast cancer last month (Photo: Wikimedia)

While the mainstream left parties of the historic European left like the French Socialists or Britain's Labour party are down on the floor there is a spring in the steps of other centre-left parties in Europe.

They rule, usually in coalition, in Nordic Europe, in Spain and Portugal, and have claimed the chancellorship in Germany even if forming a coalition between 'red' social democrats, 'orange' liberals and 'green' greens is proving tricky.

Key ministries in Italy are held by the left and even Switzerland's most dynamic cabinet minister ('Federal Counsellor' in Swiss-speak) is Alain Berset, a 49-year old French-speaking socialist.

Greece was the first country in the EU to see its traditional 20th century left party - PASOK – being massively rejected by voters. Political scientists talked of the 'Pasokification' of European social democracy in the 21st century. Even the once-mighty German SPD could only muster 25 per cent of votes in the federal elections in September.

But in truth PASOK was never a true European social democratic party but was a left variant of the clientel-ist and family tribal politics that have run Greece in its modern democratic era.

The grandfather of the current George Papandreou, also called George Papandreou, was a left-liberal but anti-communist political leader who wanted Greece to become a European republic both after 1918 and again after the Nazi occupation ended 25 years later.

Winston Churchill wanted the restoration of the monarchy and British troops were used to brutally put down efforts by the Greek left to form a reformist government, as happened in Britain, France, and most European countries after 1945.

The American head of US intelligence operations in Athens worked with far-right monarchists and said Papandreou should be shot. In due course, Papandreou came back to power via elections - but then was hit by the military coup that turned Greece into a dictatorship between 1967 and 1974.

Meanwhile, his son Andreas and his grandson George were in Minnesota where Andreas Papandreou taught economics. The young George was born in 1952. He was brought up and educated in America followed by the London School of Economics and a stint in Sweden where the family sought refuge during the years of the military dictatorship.

Many in the Greek political elite are sent abroad for university education and young George Papandreou's politics were formed by progressive political intellectuals like JK Galbraith in America or Sweden's social democratic leader, Olof Palme and Germany's Willy Brandt.

The formation of PASOK as a leftist, nationalist, party in the 1980s helped propel Andreas Papandreou to power. Clientlist politics works well for the pork-barrel right. Leftist clientelism usually means allowing trade unions or regional and municipal governments to control sectors of the economy to serve their own ends not a wider public good.

Disastrous moment

George Papandreou became party leader of PASOK and prime minister in 2009 at a disastrous moment in Greek history. He had been an innovative foreign minister but Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy demanded Greece swallow harsh austerity measures to protect German and French banks and firms investments in Greece after the financial crash.

George Papandreou was a moderniser with record of bringing in much-needed reforms and trying to get Greek shipping and other oligarchs or rich professionals to pay a modicum of tax.

But Merkel and Sarkozy and northern European finance minister wedded to rigid fiscal orthodoxy forced him out of office in 2011 and handed power to their European People's Party affiliate in Greece, who obeyed their orders to impose the most savage cuts imposed on a European democracy since 1945.

Greece's GDP dropped 25 per cent, pensions were halved, and half a million of the best-educated Greeks fled the country as poverty soared under the EU's cruel and unusual punishment economics.

The result was the election of a hard-left Syriza government with its loudmouth populist finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. George Papandreou continued his work as president of the Socialist International and was close to Clinton and Obama-era economists and the social democratic reformist thinking that brought the left to power in Sweden and other Nordic states.

The death at the age of 56 of the leader of the successor social democratic party in Greece, Fofi Gennimata, has opened up the possibility of a return to top table politics for George Papandreou.

The current prime minister of Greece also hails from one of the two families – the Mitsotakis and Karamanlis clans who have dominated the Greek right, much as the Papandreous have held sway on the left.

George Papandreou is no firebrand but has a better address book of progressive left politicians and thinkers than anyone else in Europe. Like Joe Biden he has lived and breathed politics for half a century. His inquiring, courteous, solution-searching style is far from the 20th century Greek populist demagogy which Syriza adopted.

If he emerges as leader of Greece's slowly-reviving social democratic tradition his father and grandfather will look down from Greece's political equivalent of Mount Olympus and wish the last Papandreou luck.

Author bio

Denis MacShane is a former UK minister of Europe. He writes on European policy and politics.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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