'Go ahead George, change it all': George Papandreou interviewed

About the authors
George Papandreou was foreign minister of Greece from 1999–2004 and prime minister of Greece from 2009 - November 11, 2011. He was elected president of Greece’s PASOK party in February 2004.
openDemocracy brings you this special feature.
In his Editor’s Note, Anthony Barnett introduces George Papandreou’s ‘new way’ towards open politics.

openDemocracy: This year you became the leader of your party. Could you start by saying something about how this happened?

George Papandreou: In January 2004, my party, Pasok (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement), had been in power for twenty years with only one brief interruption and I was my country’s foreign minister. As a party we were experienced and there had been changes over the years, especially among those leading the party, as you would expect. But we had become identified with power and with the establishment.

A deep desire for renewal had grown in Greek society. We were heading for elections in March and Pasok was 10% behind in the opinion polls. But the desire for renewal was also reflected within our party and amongst our own electoral base. Our prime minister, Costas Simitis, decided to step down from heading the party. This was something quite new in Greek politics – it had a magnanimous quality and he made it clear that he too wanted to open the door to change.

So when I took over from Simitis – I was the unopposed candidate to be his successor – my whole approach was “OK, now we must renew”. And not just the party, but also the political system and, most of all, what I might call the “political way” – the way we do politics, from which people had become more and more alienated.

openDemocracy: Costas Simitis stepped down as party leader in January 2004?

George Papandreou: Yes. The election had been called for March. There was very little time between January and March for me to bring a new spirit of change to bear. But when it happened I said that I would like to be elected not only by the party central committee, which was a throwback to a more hierarchical party, I wanted immediately to make politics more participatory and direct.

I proposed, and it was accepted, that we change our party constitution before I was elected so that the leader would be elected directly by the public; both the membership of the party and non–members. We opened up the polling stations to everybody who wanted to vote, somewhat like a primary.

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openDemocracy: Did those who voted have to be registered as Pasok supporters?

George Papandreou: No. We didn’t have a category of “registered supporters”. But this immediately raises the issue: what forms of relationship should a voter have with political parties? We wanted to experiment with something new. We said: “Let’s see what happens if we open up the polling to a wider public”. Would this mobilise people? Would they want to participate? Is this something that could work? We were happily surprised. Over one million voters participated in a country of around ten million. It wasn’t as if I had someone who was running against me, instead it became almost like a plebiscite in favour of direct democracy. People said that they want to be able to participate, and many today call it just that – a plebiscite. For us it was a profound moment, and coming away from this we understood that we have to make major changes to allow voters to participate much more.

openDemocracy: Did the process assist the party, in terms of the election?

George Papandreou: I think it created enthusiasm and we ended up 5% behind, rather than 10%, and with over 40% of the vote. In electoral terms, there were a number of reasons why we were not able to win. Our commitment to participation gave us a new dynamic. Nonetheless, people felt that we needed a much deeper renewal before we come back to power.

The key message that came out of the election for me was that we need more change in how we do politics than in what policies we proclaim. People began to stop me in the street and say “Go ahead George, change it all”!

A new politics for globalisation

openDemocracy: “Change it all”! That is not lacking ambition. What do you take it to mean? Do you think that it is just about participation?

George Papandreou: People have their own personal interpretations about what change means. I think there are a wide variety of demands wrapped up in this response. One important element is certainly participation. Another is the simple renewal of faces. A third is the renewal of ideas. There are new questions in society, new problems.

People want a new relationship with power. There is a sense of a greater freedom. This has positive and negative consequences for party politics. People want to be more autonomous, and in an important sense, more respected. Therefore parties must not be a supermarket of policies, but a place that gives life to core values and to the type of activities which will reflect these values. However, citizens today have multifaceted identities. People are not “the working class” or “the bourgeoisie”. We are in a society that is really changing thanks to the information society and globalisation, our identities are becoming richer but also much more fluid, less subject to fate.

When we were an industrialising society, there were clearer divisions of class and interest. You had a type of economy and lifestyle, whether blue collar or white collar, which would mean routine work and a standardised kind of job. Education would give a specific qualification and people would pretty much know what life to expect for the next thirty–to–forty years.

Now, change is very rapid. There is a great pressure on the individual to be able to change. This is good as it demands that we all become more creative. But it also means we are living in a much more insecure world, in a changing world of new knowledge, ideas, and possibilities. It is creative, but also we all experience much greater risks which generate new gaps and divides between the “creative” and those unable to change or be creative in society.

This open and creative phase in our societies brings out of people their multiple identities. You may be an office– or a factory–worker but you aspire to be a craftsman – and you may well be one at home, in your free time. You are an avid football fan, you travel, you use a computer to communicate with all kinds of people. You’re Greek but you’re also European; you’re Greek but you’re also Balkan. You feel perhaps a stronger national identity, but you also feel a multiplicity of other identities and you learn from others in a way never before possible.

In this more globalised world, political parties have to be able to express and respond to these new types of needs, the new freedom and the fears. You must respect the creativity, but also help give a sense of security and direction. As a shaping political body, our party must now work out how to express this new society and where it’s going – in a progressive way – and how this differentiates us from other political parties.

The central idea for me is that of empowering the individual in society: the idea of bringing the best out of an individual and creating the environment for this, the idea of trusting the individual, of trusting citizens. This is a progressive way of thinking. The traditional party leader appeals by saying to his followers: “You can trust me”. I think the future for progressive politics lies in leaders like myself trusting the people as citizens. It’s a new kind of relationship that is called for. I can’t emphasise enough how profound and important a change this is and we do not yet fully understand what it may mean.

George Papandreou believes that Greece’s Pasok party can embody a new way of “doing” politics appropriate to the era of globalisation – and help make Greece an example to the world. Is he right? Post your comments, suggestions, questions, criticisms to our “What is open politics?” debate forum

It is easy enough to say that “people should be empowered in society”. But I really mean it. In part, I think, what we understand by this is the way the market has empowered people as consumers. But this also isolates them and of course, the market is dominated by the media, which manipulates consumer choice. It is a freedom. It is an advance. And it is part of the globalisation to which we must respond. But it also isolates individuals and makes them feel powerless and fearful. Democratic political parties now need to find ways that assist people to act together, enhancing freedoms, solidarity, and collective thinking and action at the same time. Such political freedom is difficult to build and sustain and needs structures that we have not yet developed: this is the challenge.

Welcome to the party

openDemocracy: The free–market approach emphasises that the individual actor and the private sector are the source of all wealth. Are you saying that a democratic party can draw upon the same energy in terms of culture and politics?

George Papandreou: Absolutely. The word agora comes to mind, from the ancient Greek. It was where the citizens (male only, in the case of Athens) came to decide on the government of their city. The Greek verb agorevo means “I speak in public”. But agora also is the market. The market was an area of politics. When you try to separate the two, as neo–liberalism does, trying to create a purely economic market place, then there is no democratic control.

Similarly, if you try to create a purely political marketplace governed entirely by the state there is no democracy. We must learn to achieve a positive relationship between complex, increasingly global as well as local economies and democratic government. I am sure that political parties are crucial to this and it can’t be left to pressure groups.

openDemocracy: How are you going about this in Pasok?

George Papandreou: Well, we have a number of commissions which we hope will help reshape the party. I’ll just refer to two of them. One is about our identity, it is about more than a traditional manifesto, it will not simply write up what our purposes are but will go deeper into what socialism and democracy mean for us today. What are the values people may rally round in this age of a globalising world? Another is about what we call “the open party”, it is concerned with structures and procedures and the rights and obligations our members and friends and voters have.

openDemocracy: With what membership means?

George Papandreou: Yes. In an earlier conversation you spoke about the difficulties of democracy such as the pressures people are under. They may want to be active and involved, but they don’t have the time. So we have to think through what our system wants out of politics in a practical sense, and how this can actually be delivered in a way that respects people’s lives. It is a democratic issue because if those who don’t have time are excluded from party life then parties will not be representative.

openDemocracy: I co–authored a pamphlet for Demos in Britain called The Athenian Option. It argued that when Britain replaces the House of Lords, the new second chamber should include people selected by lot in a way that is also representative, as happened with men in ancient Athens. Not to make laws, but to scrutinise legislation. In British Columbia, it seems, something like this is currently taking place. Have you thought of bringing citizens directly into the process in this way, paying for their time if necessary, to deliberate on decisions?

George Papandreou: We haven’t thought of paying, but two different ideas of using a lottery or a rotation system have come up. This is something one could experiment with. Before we make sweeping changes, we are planning to have pilot projects and try out different forms of democratic government. We can then see what kind of effect they have and how they might be used. One thing we’re doing is to try and set up a kind of independent group that will monitor our own activities and report on how they work and are perceived. Such a group could be recruited by random selection, for instance by lottery.

The changes we’re trying to make are not simply at the top. In fact, we’re trying to make changes at the top in order to open up our party to greater participation and debate and deliberative democracy, bringing in new ideas. It has been known for parties and governments to create commissions in order to get rid of problems and close down debate or divert it into a blind alley. These commissions exist to promote debate and give it focus and relevance. We need to highlight, not hide different views, and in this way bring in different organisations and interest groups from the community. We need to see our parties less as “war headquarters” and more as biodiverse think–tanks or workshops.

Also in openDemocracy, Rachel Howard’s witty and affectionate portrait of Greece’s summer madness between its 2004 European soccer championship victory and its hosting of the Olympics Games: “Olympic countdown: the view from Athens” (August 2004)

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The politics of “deep democracy”

openDemocracy: In an earlier conversation you used a striking phrase – “info–glut” – meaning that you can have too much information. Citizens can be faced with so many points of view and differences of opinion that it confuses rather than enables you to make up your own mind.

George Papandreou: Absolutely. People can become lost in an ocean of information. They will always be looking for a lighthouse, faros, as we say in Greek. But what are these lighthouses? In an information society they will be those who are trusted to be able to help interpret or analyse what is happening. Is it a CIA or World Bank report that you’re going to be reading, is it the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a university, an NGO, or a Google–type search engine? There will be sources you trust to choose your information. But this also means that you yourself need to create a critical capacity.

This is a thing for our whole education system right now – we do very little on critical, analytical and synthetic capacity, which is the new road to learning. It is what our society is going to be about. But this is also deeply democratic – to be able to put value on information, to choose and decide for yourself. So what we would like to do as a party is to develop a culture of debate, dialogue, and critical understanding of issues, where people can set priorities and are not simply told by the experts or their “leaders” what is right and wrong for them. We have enough information; what we need now is knowledge.

openDemocracy: Surely there are also always the policies themselves, not just ways of arriving at them?

George Papandreou: Very much so. A number of big issues no longer fall within a traditional left–right framework, such as migration, narcotics, the environment. One has to start re–interpreting them in a way that combines more traditional left views with liberal ones, in the United States sense. For example, migration has to do with employment and development, but also with human rights, multiculturalism, and the ability to live in a society which is tolerant. These issues are not always identified with the traditional left.

Also there are conflicts of interest of a new kind. For example, when it comes to questions of improving environmental standards people may see it as meaning that they lose their jobs. But the same people may also want to protect the environment. It is no longer always: “This is the interest of my side and that is the interest of your side.” The nature of capitalist growth means we need to be able to take a more holistic view as citizens of our quality of life and work out how we can achieve sustainable development, which then brings in all these elements of democracy, environment, and the economy.

For example, take Amartya Sen’s thesis that famines do not occur in democracies. I think you should take that concept and widen it. Only with deep democracy will people cease to have dead-end lives. If you want to solve unemployment or some local problem, you need people to have a say for themselves. They will be able to make the judgements so as not to find themselves falling through the cracks. They need some power to deal with the changing world. Democracy in this more direct sense, even at the local level, and I would say the global level also, is a powerful tool for citizens to be able to deal with the very forces that are affecting their lives. It is a leftist principle, the equality of empowerment.

There is the question of democracy in the world economy also, and in the corporate world. How can we bring more democracy into our daily lives? It can’t mean that we’re always debating, without actually making decisions. But it should mean that certain principles of respect, consultation, and deliberation become part of our daily lives, whether it’s at work, or in the community, or family, both locally and on a world scale. Europe’s new institutions will be tested on this also.

Leadership as dialogue

openDemocracy: This also poses the nature of leadership. You say people are looking for leadership, in the lighthouse sense. But decisions have to be taken. One reaction to what you are calling for would be that it is all very well but it’s wishy-washy and won’t produce any outcomes. Yet, to take an important example, as foreign minister of Greece you took major decisions over Turkey and carried them through across quite a broad canvas, in terms of international negotiations, and reversed Greece’s policy in a striking and unexpected way. So how do you see yourself as a leader and a decision-taker?

George Papandreou: There is a traditional style of leadership that caters to a deep insecurity that people may have. One of the characteristics of this traditional style is even to encourage fear and insecurity, and then come and say: “I am the great leader who will solve this”. It is actually more than a style; it goes much deeper – perhaps it’s even a philosophy.

It is no secret that I opposed the US government’s policy on Iraq and the “axis of evil”. This type of foreign policy is associated with a form of power that projects leadership as command. It is not only President Bush who projects this, but he does so very openly: he claims that if the commander-in-chief is strong and never wavers, then all problems will eventually be solved. It implies a leader who is saying to his people: “Me strong, you weak”. I believe we are seeing a resurgence of this philosophy in conservative parties all around the world.

When I was first elected as a member of parliament in 1981 people said: “Now George, you’ve got to bang the table.” Even though we came in on a wave of popular support for change, people advised me that once in government, you had to take on the trappings of government and the traditional style of leadership. People would say you look weak if you’re not cursing the opposition and driving around in a big black car while always wearing a tie. Above all, to be “strong” you’re always supposed to be giving orders.

My initial reaction was maybe I should follow their advice. Luckily for me, quite soon I felt that this is not what I believe in. I said to myself, “I’m going to go about things my own way, which I think is a more democratic way, and hopefully I will be able to communicate it.” I realised that I would have to fight to communicate it. There was a whole political culture that had to change.

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Part of this is about personal style and the way you appear but I am talking about something deeper than fashion, I am talking about a way of doing politics. What is at stake is the relationship between professional politicians and voters. I felt that if people didn’t want it the way I did then I’d just get out of politics and do something else.

Today, a lot has now changed. But old attitudes persist. When people feel insecure the knee–jerk reaction is still: “We need someone strong”. Take the issue of narcotics for example. The first reaction most people have is: “Where are the police?” You have to think it through to see that throwing an addict into jail isn’t the solution to dealing with the narcotics problem. There are certain conflicts – like the middle east – where people seek solutions using force and exerting military power when these should be the very last resort.

An opening to the world

openDemocracy: To return to your own method of leadership. You took decisions over Turkey that didn’t go along with the approach and attitudes you inherited. You reversed your country’s policy. So there must have been a certain point where you gave an order.

George Papandreou: Absolutely. There is a certain point where you have to make a decision and a commitment. But I deeply believe that breaking the mould, the “trappings”, the “conventional wisdom”, is the type of freedom our societies and citizens need to be able to change our views and attitudes. You can do this in a way that is not violent and aggressive. You can do it by staying committed to your principles, and that’s one of the important things. Power by itself has no principles. If you have principles, then you judge how power is best used, and decide on the different tools for doing so, and see their limits.

This is true in any situation. We can dare to question the convention the conventional wisdom – the trappings of power. If we’re talking of Greek–Turkish relations, the “establishment” had built up established views that were entrenched in both of our countries. We needed a new approach to break these moulds. We were able to create a framework where we said: “Let’s work for consensus, and wherever we don’t find consensus let’s put it to the side for a while, rather than become confrontational.” We took a new direction and worked our way through everything we could in a way that was positive. This allowed us to create a basis of trust and also each side gained an understanding of the other. Together we worked through what our differences were, which then meant we could revisit the more difficult issues at a later point.

I think quite often in confrontational situations people and politicians create a culture of a zero–sum game. This in turn creates a leadership philosophy which is authoritarian and militaristic, whereas in fact in the society we’re living in now, we can create win–win situations, where you can synthesise much more. Indeed, bringing in differences can actually be a strength.

For example, when Greece held the presidency of the European Council I oppose demonising the Serbs. My view is that we are all people and we should avoid demonising our opponents. This applies to local politics, but it’s easier sometimes to project dislike onto people from a different nation, culture and language. What was happening in the Balkans was that, consciously or not the United States was giving out a message that all Serbs are evil. There was a stereotyping which was very backward in its thinking. I argued that they had to be given hope and it was necessary to talk to them. You have to allow them to create their own way. If one only bombed them they would react and say: ”We are the victims, why are we the bad people?” Instead, leadership should be about showing people that they can create their own alternatives.

There were different views over Serbia within the European Union. But we were able to develop a post–war Greek–Dutch proposal called “Energy for Democracy”. Basically we said: “Let’s help communities gain a democratic voice and then get oil to them.” It encouraged democratic groups to argue that the outside world is not all against us. It helped them to say: “We are being treated like humans and we should see what kind of change we can make in our own society”.

The European perspective is important. Just before the election contest between Vojislav Kostunica and Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 I took a trip to Yugoslavia. I met with both leaders. I told the country on behalf of Europe that Serbs are free to choose their own future and this will be respected and recognised by Europe. Of course, I had talked with all my EU colleagues beforehand to make sure they would support this message. Similarly, giving Turkey the prospect of being part of the EU has opened up new alternatives for the Turks, and a new dynamic in our relationship. We can start to see that we will be in the same family down the road, living by the same principles.

openDemocracy: You seem to be saying that as foreign minister you sought an open, more democratic relationship between Greece and its neighbours and the world, one which fitted with the forces of globalisation and the shared sovereignty of the European project. And now you are looking for a similar, new dynamic between Pasok as a party and Greek society?

George Papandreou: Yes, that’s right. A new framework within which one sees the new kinds of politics, problems, and conflicts we all face. Let me put it this way: Greece has gone through a number of authoritarian regimes. We have traditions of patronage, clientilism, and corruption. These still cast their shadows. Greek society has developed a passive view, not so much of politics, for people can be very political and active, but of what one’s potential is. Most Greeks feel, “I cannot do very much, all I can do is lobby some great power up there”. It is very debilitating.

A party is an agency for change. Traditionally, this has been achieved by old–fashioned hierarchy within the party and then using the power of the state or municipality when voted into office. Sometimes that power can be misused, or abused, in ways that are clearly wrong even though everyone knows they often happen. But also, nowadays, the framework of power itself is a kind of abuse, which takes power away from people in their own names, giving them fear rather than confidence. You can see this very clearly in the authoritarian traditions of the Balkans and central and eastern Europe.

openDemocracy: To change this may not be to change everything but it is certainly seeking to alter a lot. After the Pasok conference in January 2005 there will still be four years until the next national elections. What you are seeking will surely take longer to achieve than that.

George Papandreou: We’re looking to get back to power at the next elections. But we’re also looking deeper and further ahead. We will not be returned to government unless we offer a future of better democracy in the long term. We are thinking of ten–to–fifteen year programmes to develop Greece in ways that will, we hope, set an example to the world.