Papandreou wrestles with family legacy

March 6, 2010

PAPANDREOU.jpgAs he struggles to pull Greece back from the brink of financial ruin, Prime Minister George Papandreou’s heavy political legacy is proving to be both a blessing and a curse.

The eldest son of the late premier Andreas Papandreou, the socialist maverick who threatened to take Greece out of the EU while milking it for generous subsidies, can tap into the deep pool of adoration many Greeks still feel for the elder Papandreou, draw on his famous words and deeds to make difficult austerity measures more palatable.

“During his speech to his parliamentary group this week, he indicated in all ways possible a connection with this father,” said Costas Panagopoulos, chief of ALCO pollsters. “He even used some of his father’s expressions.”

In that dramatic speech, he referred to the PASOK party founder and spoke about “rescuing the nation from the nightmare of bankruptcy”.
The effort was not lost on Greek commentators. Giorgos Lakopoulos wrote in the main daily Ta Nea that, like his father in the 1990s, George Papandreou was forced to set aside socialist ideology in the face of impending economic catastrophe.

“He brings to the table unpopular measures to avert the country’s bankruptcy,” Lakopoulos wrote. “(Party officials) should not be raising issues of ideological purity.”

Although Papandreou virtually inherited the leadership of one of Greece’s two main parties and then went on to win a difficult internal battle, many question whether he has complete control over PASOK.
“Most of the PASOK supporters don’t even ‘get’ George. They believe in the Papandreou tradition and that’s why they back him,” a personal friend of his told me over coffee just before the October 4 election that returned the socialists to power after 5 years of conservative rule, now blamed for the debt crisis.

The family connection can win him support among the public, which had backed his government’s efforts before the latest wave of tough salary cuts and tax hikes were announced. But the legacy of old guard PASOK members who served his father and control special interest groups and local regions, cannot be ignored.

While the elder Papandreou ruled the party with an iron fist and had no tolerance for dissent – one minister famously found out he was sacked from TV – his mild-mannered son prefers transparency and consensus.
He has used some of the older party members in his cabinet and allows them to question policies with impunity.

At Friday’s emergency parliamentary process to approve the austerity measures, old guard members voted for the bill but did not hesitate to voice their concerns.

“(This bill) has nothing to do with PASOK’s nature,” said Christos Papoutsis, head of the party’s parliamentary group. “It’s another thing to get the country out of the crisis, and another thing to lose our souls as people and as a party.”

Such high ranking members cannot be dismissed without serious damage to the party at a time when unity is crucial. It is this family legacy George Papandreou will find most difficult to cope with.

(Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou speaks during a news conference in Berlin)

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