Farewell, George Papandreou

The outgoing Greek prime minister’s two years in office have been an exhausting series of austerity packages, emergency summits and strikes, all permeated by a permanent sense of crisis.

I was watching one of our old Al Jazeera reports the other night. It was from October 2009, the night George Papandreou became prime minister of Greece.

A warm autumn evening.  I was there, and I remember it well. Thousands of supporters of the Socialist PASOK party were celebrating on the streets of Athens.

Papandreou walks through the crowd with a beaming smile. A young woman says to our camera “I’ve looked so hard for work but I can’t find any. I have no money. But, now, I think everything will get better. I’m so happy”.

Was that really just two years ago? It feels like a lifetime. How sad, and how poignant, to look back at those pictures, knowing what we know today. It seems incredible, but remember that during that election campaign, George Papandreou rode to victory with promises to actually increase government spending should he win. Was he being naive, or cynical?

How much did he really know about the looming economic disaster? It’s not clear. But what we do know is that Papandreou and PASOK have been on the back-foot almost ever since they took power. Buffeted by relentless bad news and merciless markets, they have never been able to shake off a permanent sense of crisis.

George Papandreou’s two years in office have been an exhausting series of austerity packages, emergency summits in Brussels, bailout rumours, strikes, riots, more bailouts, urgent meetings in Berlin, more austerity… and so it goes on. Suddenly, this small country on the periphery of Europe found itself at the centre of a global financial storm.

George Papandreou comes from a political dynasty, the son and grandson of former prime ministers. That must bring with it a sense of entitlement, but Papandreou is not a typical Greek politician.

Quiet, softly-spoken, born in the United States to an American mother, and educated in Canada, Britain and Sweden, many Greeks have always seen him as something of an outsider. In person he’s humble and self-assuming. Nice, you might say, almost disarmingly so.

Did he make mistakes? Undoubtedly. The austerity measures he’s adopted have sent the Greek economy into a death-spiral. Did he have a choice? It’s hard to know, given the pressure he was under from other European leaders and the IMF. Greece was, and still is, effectively bankrupt.

For the past 18 months, the country has relied on money from abroad just to pay civil servants and keep the lights on.  With that, inevitably, has come a loss of sovereignty. But by imposing ever-harsher taxes and spending cuts on the poorer parts of society whilst failing to take on wealthy vested interests, Papandreou’s reforms lost legitimacy, and he was fatally undermined.

By the end he knew that. Hence his dramatic, and unexpected call for a referendum. There were clear signs that Greece was becoming ungovernable. The protests against politicians on “Oxi Day” (supposedly a day of national pride), the sit-ins at various ministries, the growth of  “We Won’t Pay” movements all these showed how authority was draining away from the government.

In the end, the gambit failed. European leaders were furious with the idea of a referendum, which Mr Papandreou had never mentioned during the long negotiations the previous week. Over the past two years, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy had come to see George Papandreou as someone they could do business with.

At a stroke, he ruined that reputation. The Greek people, confronted for the first time with the stark reality of expulsion from the eurozone and even the EU, recoiled in fear. Mr Papandreou had to back down, and decided to resign.

Now others will take on the poisoned chalice. Who would want to run Greece right now anyway? The opposition leader, Antonis Samaras, who has sniped for the sidelines for the past two years, can no longer hide from his responsibilities.

Have we seen the last of George Papandreou. Friends in Athens say “no”, that the desire for power is in his DNA. Greece faces years of austerity and probably political instability, so the future is very unpredictable.

All we can say is that this time around, it’s perhaps surprising that George Papandreou managed to cling on for so long.

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