Can Greece Lead the Way?

As the left across Europe flounders in the wake of the economic crisis, the Greek socialist party under George Papandreou could prove the exception with its dramatic election victory. His aim is nothing less than a pioneering form of progressive government that combines green development, democratic openness and international reconciliation.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Mary Kaldor
9 November 2009

On October 4, Greek voters decisively supported the socialist opposition, PASOK, and gave an absolute majority to its leader George Papandreou. The outcome goes against the grain of voting patterns across Europe where the centre right is resurgent. Norway may be an exception, cushioned by its vast oil funds. In Portugal, the left won its September general election but with a reduced mandate. By contrast, Athens has witnessed the crushing of the right.

While some commentators in the world press have recognised the importance of this election victory, many have interpreted the Greek outcome as simply deep frustration with the failures of the previous Conservative government. Some have even tried to argue that the resounding endorsement of PASOK’s reform agenda is ‘really’ an endorsement of stability and conservatism in a small country where politics has been dominated by political dynasties. In their view, the Papandreou election is therefore a symbol of continuity not change.

We think this is wrong. Certainly Greece’s deep-rooted corruption, clientelism and a huge budget overhang may cripple the incoming government and prevent it delivering its remarkable reform programme. But Papandreou is an exceptionally original and open-minded politician, wishing to lead both Greece and PASOK towards a genuinely far-sighted response to the financial and environmental crisis and the international challenges facing Europe.

Papandreou is seeking a three-fold process of reform:

  • A ‘green development’ economic strategy for sustainable growth
  • Open and accountable politics that build in deliberation and other direct forms of participation
  • A foreign policy that involves civil society, rather than its traditional exclusion.

For twenty years, neo-liberalism has twisted left-wing governments into the politics of ‘triangulation’. The wreckage is particularly embarrassing in the United Kingdom, home of New Labour’s ill-fated ‘Third Way’. Papandreou is seeking to avoid this damaging influence and pioneer in Europe a progressive form of social democracy perhaps with parallels to what is taking place in Australia and even, although it is early days, Japan.

We have direct experience of one small part of the learning process that lies behind Papandreou’s strategy. We have worked with many others in the ‘Symi Symposium’ that Papandreou initiated 12 years ago. Named after the Aegean island on which the first seminar was held, these informal workshops began as a joint initiative of the Andreas Papandreou and Olaf Palme institutes, as a way of exchanging views on the future of the left. Every year since then Papandreou has hosted these gatherings on a different Mediterranean island, bringing together leading global academics, activists and policy makers to debate how to achieve a better world. Out of these seminars has emerged what could be described a Symi school of thought: new progressive approaches to such issues as foreign policy, democracy or economic and social development in the context of the new pressures and challenges of globalisation.

The Symi seminars fall into two distinct sets. The first six took place when PASOK was in government. For much of the time Papandreou was its visionary Foreign Minister, including the six months when Greece held the presidency of the European Union. For the first six years the big idea was perhaps the role that civil society can play in foreign policy. The original seminar brought together civil society activists and politicians from the whole of South East Europe, in an effort to address regional conflicts and to counter the prevailing image of ‘Balkanisation’. Subsequent seminars also addressed the Caucasus and the Middle East. Papandreou applied his ideas about direct democracy and citizen action repeatedly as foreign minister, most notably when he called upon Greek civil society to help the Turkish people in the aftermath of a major earthquake. The response was overwhelming and provided the basis for the subsequent rapprochement between Greece and Turkey.

But PASOK had been in power for nearly twenty years and was heading for defeat. In early 2004, Papandreou was invited to take on the leadership of PASOK a few weeks before the election to try and prevent inevitable defeat. Although the right-wing New Democrats headed by Karamanlis gained a decisive victory, Papandreou halved the gap he inherited and gained sufficient authority to start the long fight-back.

When Papandreou’s party suffered a second defeat in 2007 there was an internal backlash which threatened to remove him from party leadership. Much of the frustration was rooted in resistance to Papandreou’s efforts to reform PASOK, whose legacy was blighted by corruption. Papandreou also had to contend with the legacy of his father, Andreas Papandreou, who founded PASOK after returning from exile to help restore democracy after the military dictatorship in Greece from 1967 to 1974. The elder Papandreou’s popularity was never in question, but his attraction was populist and his methods clientelistic.

George Papandreou is determined not to repeat the tactics of the past. As Foreign Minister, he showed a rare capacity to exercise diplomatic power boldly and successfully. As a modern man, fluent in Swedish, educated in America, his style eschews the tub-thumping rhetoric favoured by Greek politicians. Initially reluctant to enter politics, his project is to put Greece on the path to becoming a contemporary, non-corrupt polity.

After 2004, with Papandreou out of office, a necessarily more modest series of Symi symposia set out to explore how to rebuild progressive politics. His first decision was to focus on the future of democracy itself, having witnessed massive discontent with the party system and declining voter turnout, a phenomenon not limited to Greece. He made this the theme of the 2004 symposium, arguing in an interview with openDemocracy, “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.”

In addition to investing in innovative e-democracy and e-governance tools, Papandreou explored new forms of deliberative democracy and the use of open primaries.  Drawing on the inventive work of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy in Stanford, Papandreou held a deliberative poll to select the Mayoral candidate at Marousi, a suburb of Athens, in 2006. And when Papandreou’s leadership was challenged after PASOK’s defeat in September 2007, he responded by calling for a nation-wide ballot in which members of the public and not just party members could vote. Both of these approaches can be seen as an attempt to limit the influence of the traditional party apparatus and open PASOK out to a still sceptical public.

While retaining an interest in how to do politics “differently”, the Symi Symposia also focussed on the key problems of modern life. In 2006, cities and migration policy became the main theme. In 2007, climate change. The urgency of environmental sustainability was ominously vindicated as forest fires swept the Greek mainland. In 2008, the Symi Symposium built on this theme, widening it to address issues of energy as well as the crisis of international institutions. With participants including the Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joe Stiglitz, the financial crash later in 2008 was not a total surprise.

What has been exciting about the two most recent Symi symposia is the emergence of a concept of ‘green development’ as an alternative both to neo-liberalism and the old statist left, and also as a way of overcoming the current economic crisis. Green development is the only form of development that is both environmentally and economically sustainable since it offers the possibility not just of energy savings but of productivity gains. Green development is local and decentralised even though it requires both state intervention and markets.  Papandreou argues that green development is both a necessity and an opportunity for Greece. Greece is likely to be one of the areas hardest hit by climate change – it is vulnerable to desertification, which would also undermine its tourist-based economy. At the same time, with plenty of sun and wind, Greece could become a pioneer in renewable energy.

We live in an age when all politicians tell voters that they offer profound answers to “new challenges” and promise to be different. Naturally, such rhetoric often serves only to deepen public cynicism, encouraged by lazy and cliché infected journalism. Instead, reporters and commentators should inquire into whether the commitments and rhetoric of election programmes have any hinterland of thought and commitment.

In this case we can report that over the last half decade George Papandreou has hosted a rare process of reconsideration, investigation and debate. First, into the foundations of democratic politics. Second, into the policies needed to ensure more egalitarian and workable solutions to the economic and social issues of our time, developing the case for green growth. Third, ending the elitism of foreign policy and confronting international issues (including migration) by involving rather than excluding civil society. If any Athens based politician can help overcome the division of Cyprus, it is likely to be Papandreou; and if he does so it will be because he seeks intelligent reconciliation.

George Papandreou and his team will confront an extraordinary test in office and it would be foolish to predict a certain success. But while the left across Europe is divided and exhausted of ideas, Papandreou has undertaken a practical exercise in preparing for change. His originality should not be under-estimated or disparaged. It would be fortunate indeed if the new Prime Minister of Greece becomes a pathmaker for the centre-left across the continent.

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