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Tue October 4, 2011
Greek Prime Minister: Undoing His Father's Legacy
Greek Prime Minster George Papandreou, who was born and raised in the U.S., belongs to Greece's most important political dynasty — he's the son and grandson of prime ministers.
And yet just two years after he led the Socialist party to victory, his popularity has plummeted, his debt-stricken country is at the heart of the eurozone crisis and he faces the daunting task of dismantling the generous welfare state his father created.
Anti-government protests have been escalating in decibels and numbers. Many demonstrators were once loyalists of the ruling Socialists – but all party flags have disappeared, replaced by posters depicting George Papandreou as an American stooge or an alien from Mars.
Greeks are furious as the government slashes public sector wages and pensions and raises taxes. But the prime minister seems unfazed.
"Many ask me, 'But do you have the support?'" Papandreou said last week in Berlin. "My first answer is, 'That is not my problem.' I've said, I am here to work for my country, save the country, change the country, whether I'm re-elected or not is not my problem."
Papandreou was basking in the applause of a group of German businessmen. This is precisely what triggers the most criticism in Greece: the cosmopolitan prime minister seems more comfortable abroad than in his homeland.
Raised In The U.S.
The 59-year-old Papandreou was born in Minnesota and also lived in California and Massachusetts. He has degrees from Amherst College and Harvard University. His mother was American, and father Andreas, a Greek economics professor at the time, was forced into exile after a military junta took power in 1967.
Perhaps because of his years abroad, George Papandreou's Greek is still inflected with a Midwestern American accent and his bearing is much more reserved than is typical in this Mediterranean society.
Journalist and publisher George Kirtsos has known Papandreou since they both were college students in the U.S., and he says the father and son couldn't be more different.
"Andreas Papandreou was a firebrand socialist, big spender, charismatic politician, let's say, a very capable orator," Kirtsos says. And how does he describe the son? "OK, he's a nice guy, liberal, in the American sense of the word, open-minded but this doesn't make him effective in the, let's say, byzantine environment of Greek politics."
After the fall of the junta, Andreas Papandreou founded Pasok, the Socialist party. Following in the footsteps of his father, George Papandreou, Sr., he was elected prime minister in 1981. Society was polarized by years of civil conflict and decades of right-wing rule.
Father Built Welfare State
But, thanks to Greece's entry into the European Union, the state was suddenly flush with cash. That allowed Andreas Papandreou to create a generous welfare state. Improved education, health care and social mobility also helped heal the political wounds of the past.
Sociologist Despina Papadopoulou says the result was a large middle class that kept Pasok in power for almost 20 of the last 30 years.
Now, with draconian austerity measures, Papadopoulou says, George Papandreou is undoing his father's legacy.
"The paradox is that it is the same ruling party that is destroying the middle class, is destroying the social forces that helped it (gain) access to power and this is our real crisis," Papadopoulou says.
Last year, when Papandreou announced he was seeking a $150 billion international bailout, he declared he was inspired by antiquity. Greece was facing a new Odyssey, he said, but knew how to get back to Ithaca.
Konstantinos Koutsodimos, vice president of the powerful Genop union, is also a Pasok loyalist. Dismayed by the prime minister's severe cutbacks and tax hikes, he wonders whether George the son has an Oedipus complex.
"This is a political patricide," he says. "Papandreou's policy is a complete betrayal. Before being elected, he promised that he would increase the social welfare state. He said he would increase wages, and in just two months after his election he reversed everything, he forgot all his promises."
Many economists here agree that the Greek welfare system has grown too big, is tainted with corruption, and that the massive public sector must be drastically streamlined.
But analysts question whether Papandreou — who has alienated so many Greeks — will be able to deliver. His drive to save the country without social consensus seems to be a Sisyphean task.