Going against the European grain, Greece has voted George Papandreou’s center-left PaSoK party to power in a landslide. Promising a new political culture, an end to cronyism and a 3 billion euro stimulus package for the economy, the president of the Socialist International has at last won the job that was held by his father and grandfather before him. But despite being to the manor born, Papandreou is neither a lightweight nor a populist demagogue in the style of his father, Andreas, who took such pains to be a thorn in Ronald Reagan’s side. Mild-mannered, thoughtful, modest, he is a new Papandreou for the age of Obama: an American-born, European social democrat with a green conscience and a commitment to markets as well as democracy.
Nor is his victory a sign that Europe is leaning left: witness Angela Merkel’s recent triumph in Germany. It is a local phenomenon, the product of Greece’s recent political history. PaSoK lost power to the conservative New Democracy in 2004 after eleven years in office, during which it squeezed Greece into the Eurozone, put through a patchwork program of modernizing reforms, mended relations with Turkey, staged a grand (and exorbitant) Olympic Games, and became a byword for paybacks and corruption. New Democracy’s Kostas Karamanlis (also a scion of an old political dynasty) took over with a promise to clean out the Augean stables.
But New Democracy’s carryings-on made PaSoK’s scandals look like minor pecadilloes. Overpriced government bonds were sold to state pension funds; cabinet ministers dreamed up lucrative property scams with abbots from Mount Athos. On Karamanlis’s watch, vast tracts of the country literally went up in flames; the fire service, weakened by political interference, did too little much too late, and the promised restoration of forests, farms and villages fell victim to the usual toxic mixture of incompetence and graft. For a few days last December, violence in Athens gripped the world’s TV cameras. The shooting of a 15-year old boy by a trigger-happy policeman seemed to sum up the state’s indifference to a whole generation; broken promises were repaid with smashed shop windows and hopelessness with rioting in the streets.
When Papandreou became the leader of his party in 2004 he vowed to root out the corruption bred by many decades of patronage politics, a task at least as hard as persuading Americans to accept public health care. Until the economic crisis brought down property prices, much of Greece made ends meet by selling off plots of land; Papandreou’s commitment to sustainable development will also require a lot of citizen re-education. (He has made an excellent start by scrapping the previous government’s appalling tourism plan, which would have covered the coast with condos and diverted scarce water supplies to thirsty golf courses.) Vested interests, old behavior patterns, inertia and plain greed will rub the glow off the election promises the way they always do. But just for today, for this diaspora Greek, the relief is almost thrilling.