From academy to acropolis

December 22, 1995

Richard Clogg looks back at the life of Andreas Papandreou, the urbane Greek academic who became his country's populist prime minister. Andreas Papandreou currently lies in the Onasseion Heart Hospital in Athens. Outside, weeping supporters offer their organs for transplantation.

Desperately ill and hooked up to a life support machine, he is surrounded by a motley crew of bearded monks bearing miracle-working icons and holy oil, not to mention astrologers sporting wigs and white coats to disguise them from the ever intrusive Greek press. These have been orchestrated by his (third) wife, Dimitra, universally known as Mimi. Thirtyfive years Papandreou's junior, this former Olympic Airways stewardess explicitly sees herself as Aspasia to Papandreou's Pericles and wields enormous power in the prime minister's entourage. Naked pictures of this ultimate in trophy wives, in a variety of exotic poses, have been splashed over the Athenian press in recent weeks.

In this Gotterdammerung it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in an earlier incarnation, Andreas Papandreou was a world-class academic economist. Trained at Harvard, he became a US citizen and subsequently taught at the Universities of Minnesota and California at Berkeley in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was a tribute to his manifest political talents, indeed, that he was elected chairman of the Berkeley economics department, one of the most distinguished in the United States and not an easy one to manage.

In his early forties, at the height of his powers and reputation as an economist, he was invited back to Greece in 1961 by the conservative prime minister (and arch-rival of his centrist politician father), Constantine Karamanlis, to head the Centre of Economic Research. There he built up a powerful team of economists, acted as an economic adviser to the Bank of Greece and published A Strategy for Greek Economic Development.

When his father, George, became prime minister in 1963, ending a right-wing dominance of Greek politics which had lasted more or less since the end of the civil war in 1949, the younger Papandreou decided to enter politics, beginning the process of transformation from a thoroughly Americanised academic to a demagogic populist.

Elected a deputy in the elections of 1964, he was promptly appointed by his father alternate minister of co-ordination, the key economic ministry. But his rapid rise to power (and American ways) ruffled many feathers in the ranks of the Centre Union, not least on the part of those who saw him as a possible rival for the future leadership of his septuagenarian father's party. After vocal criticism from party traditionalists he resigned his ministerial office, becoming the focus of a radical group of younger deputies on the centre-left of the party. At this time he was accused of being the prime mover of a "Nasserite" conspiratorial group in the armed forces which went under the name Aspida or Shield.

After his father's government fell from power in the great political crisis of July 1965, the younger Papandreou increasingly came to be seen as a bogeyman by the extreme right. It was fear that his father might return to power in elections scheduled for May 1967, and more to the point, that the younger Papandreou might emerge as the real power in such a new government, that was to prove a major catalyst for the coup launched by a group of disgruntled and pathologically anti-communist middle-ranking army officers known collectively as "the Colonels".

On the day of the coup, April 21 1967, Papandreou was promptly arrested, but following some highly effective lobbying of the White House by former economist colleagues in the US he was allowed to leave the country and took a post teaching economics at York University in Ontario, Canada. All the while his political views were rapidly evolving from the essentially social democratic views he had propounded in Greece to the much more radical agenda he espoused while in exile. He became a bitter critic of American, Nato and EEC policy towards Greece and, embracing the rhetoric of Marxist-inspired third-world liberation movements, called for the armed overthrow of the Athenian junta. To this end he established a resistance organisation, PAK (the Panhellenic Liberation Movement), whose maximalist rhetoric found little echo in Greece and whose activities contributed little to the downfall of the Colonels' regime.

As leader of PAK, Papandreou, while rejecting the bureaucratic centralism of the eastern bloc, adopted a neo-Marxist analytical framework, characterised the coming struggle in Greece as one of national liberation and anti-imperialism, and rejected social democracy on the West European model. He advocated social liberation and a radical reorientation of the country's foreign policy, including withdrawal from Nato, the closure of the American bases and rejection of the EEC, which he denounced as a capitalist club. Greece, in Papandreou's tirelessly repeated view, was a marginal country within the world capitalist system, forming part of the "periphery" or "hinterland" of a capitalist juggernaut that had entered a monopolistic, paternalistic and imperialistic phase.

These notions were incorporated in the platform of Pasok, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, the political party that he founded in Athens in September 1974, soon after the demise of the Colonels. Within the Greek political context Pasok was strikingly innovative. For the first time a political party outside the far left had a developed ideology. At the same time the party developed a country-wide organisational structure, which brought Pasok's enigmatic symbol of the Greek sun to the remotest village in the country. No matter that authority within the party was very much exercised from the top down by Papandreou himself rather than from the bottom up by the party's grassroots.

Papandreou's idiosyncratic brand of populist socialism, combining as it did the promise of radical transformation on the domestic front with a determination to break with Greece's traditional dependence on foreign patrons, and latterly the United States, clearly struck a responsive chord with an ever increasing section of the electorate. Within seven years, Papandreou's 13 per cent share of the vote in the 1974 election had almost quadrupled to 48 per cent, enough to secure him a handsome majority in the election of 1981.

In a society such as Greece, with its inordinate respect for university professors, Papandreou's academic background was an added attraction. One awed Pasok deputy even declared in the early 1980s that he had read "800 times (sic), all told, half a page of Andreas Papandreou's book Paternalistic Capitalism (written during his Canadian exile under the Colonels), and I didn't understand a word of it. But from what I've heard, even educated people cannot understand it. So how could we understand it. The author is 30 years ahead of all of us I".

It was during his eight years in power in the 1980s that Papandreou demonstrated what one critic has characterised as his "incredible capacity to claim one thing while doing another". He was frequently out of step with his EC and Nato partners. He took, for instance, a benign view of General Jaruzelski's crushing of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 and he castigated the United States as the metropolis of world imperialism (while seeing no anomaly in his children attending expensive private American universities).

But, rhetoric apart, nothing changed in the fundamentals of Greece's foreign policy. Papandreou did not pull Greece out of Nato or the EC, whose huge subsidies to Greece helped, indeed, to sustain Pasok in power. The American bases remained. Nor were there major structural changes on the domestic front. Patronage remained the lynchpin of the Greek political system, even if it was now dispensed not, as in the past, by individual deputies, but by a party machine rigidly, even ruthlessly, controlled by Papandreou himself. Socialism in Greece remained an elusive chimera. Nonetheless some overdue reforms were introduced: the legalisation of civil marriage; the introduction of divorce by consent; the removal of adultery from the catalogue of criminal offences; the official recognition of the wartime anti-Axis resistance.

The first Pasok era ended with Papandreou's defeat in the 1989 amid a welter of scandals reaching to the highest levels of the party. These, coupled with the highly public abandonment of his second wife and mother of his four children, Margaret, for the ample and florid charms of Mimi and life-threatening illness, seemed to many observers to indicate that his political career must surely be over.

But Papandreou demonstrated his uncanny ability to walk on political water by bouncing back to office in 1993, with a share of the vote only marginally less than in his great triumph of 1981. He was, however, clearly not the man he had been. Scarcely able to work more than a couple of hours a day, power was wielded by Mimi and a seedy camarilla of cronies. Moreover, Papandreou wilfully refused to address the question of who might succeed him, while at the same time making no effort to pour cold water on his wife's blatant political ambitions. Hence the Byzantine manoeuvrings over the succession.

Future biographers will have difficulty in reconciling the many contradictions in Papandreou's complex character. How is the urbane and supremely rational Berkeley economist of the 1950s to be squared with the populist rabble rouser of the 1980s, mouthing dangerous demagoguery of the "there are no institutions there is only the people" variety? How could the charming private persona be accompanied by the very public flaunting of Mimi to the humiliation of Margaret Papandreou and his children? How is it that despite the sea of troubles that beset him in the late 1980s his share of the vote never fell beneath 39 per cent? Why did such a highly sophisticated and educated man behave like an old-fashioned kommatarkhis, or party boss, treating his party as his personal fiefdom? Should he be categorised as the last of the dinosaurs, as the Greeks call their geriatric ruling caste, rather than the first of the modernisers, which he was so well suited to become?

Not a few academics aspire to enter political life. But the example of Andreas Papandreou's political career must surely be a salutary corrective to any notion they may harbour that an academic presence must necessarily make the political arena a more rational place.

Richard Clogg is a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford.

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