Quick summary of Andreas Papandreou. He was the son of Greek Prime Minster George Papandreou. He was the founder of Greece’s socialist PASOK party that dominated Greek politics from 1981 until last year. He was Prime Minister of Greece from 1981-1989 and 1990-1993. The stuff currently going on in Greece is largely his fault. When he and his party took over, they expanded and corrupted the civil service (and started a dynamic where all of his successors - regardless of ruling party - did more of the same) and expanded the welfare state while leaving a broken tax system. Some of these trends predated Papandreou, but he accelerated them and every Greek government since Papandreou has been dedicated to managing the state of affairs that Papandreou brought into existence. He was a “socialist” but the “conservatives” of New Democracy managed the Papandreou-created clientist and welfare state (though Papandreou more expanded than invented those in Greece) and tried to make it work for those clients that chose to associate themselves with the nominally conservative party. Each successor also hoped that the unsustainable system would crash on someone else’s watch.
Some people have compared Alexis Tsipras ( the leader of the radical-left SYRIZA party) to Papandreou. They both led leftist parties that displaced the previous main left-of-center party. Papandreou and PASOK displaced the moderate Center Union party and SYRIZA displaced (possibly only for the moment) Papandreou’s PASOK. Both Papandreou and Tsipras ran on big promises. But when Papandreou took power in 1981, things turned out okay - for a while. When Papandreou first formed PASOK in 1974, he was against Greek membership in NATO and the European Economic Community (the predecessor organization of today’s European Union.) When Papandreou won his first national election in 1981, he abandoned those positions. Papandreou still took crowd-pleasing swipes at the US, but he focused policy on expanding the clientist and welfare states while staying within the American defense umbrella and the European common market. Papandreou was, among other things, a power-seeker with a well calibrated sense of how much he could push allied governments.
So what does this have to do with Tsipras? Tsipras is running on a platform of repudiating Greece’s loan agreement with its creditors, refusing to pay interest on the outstanding debt, and still demanding the future loan installments (though more as aid than as loans.) All of this is to pay for new social spending in the bankrupt country even as Tsipras promises and increase in the minimum wage and to end privatization of government-owned enterprises and stop civil service layoffs. Tsipras has suggested he will get the money by threatening a global financial meltdown if he doesn’t get his own way.
So what are we to learn of Tsipras from the example of Andreas Papandreou? One possible lesson is that the Greek demagogue will give way to pragmatism when the demagoguery threatens his grip on power. It is possible Tsipras will evolve in the same way. Maybe his promises and threats are just a way to get some votes during the election and a slightly better deal from Germany in debt negotiations. Maybe a Prime Minister Tsipras will back off before he produces a point-of-no-return crisis. I don’t know, but there are reasons to not be confident that Tsipras will rise to the occasion. For all of his many faults, Andreas Papandreou in 1981 was a much more impressive figure than Alexis Tsipras in 2012. Here are some differences:
1. Papandreou was a professional economist who had held multiple academic and government posts. He must have known he was building a rotten and unsustainable state apparatus. He also knew that his expansion of benefits and government jobs to supporters were vote-getters and that someone else would get stuck with the bill. Ironically that someone else turned out to be Andreas’ son Prime Minister George Papandreou (yeah, same name as Andreas’ Prime Minister father.) Tsipras is a civil engineer and no doubt he knows math, but his real career is fringe political activist. He is a sit-in guy. He has never had to pay a country’s bills or show how he could do so. It is anybody’s guess what Tsipras will do if the EU and IMF call his bluff. Tsipras probably doesn’t know either.
2. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou had some experience of political responsibility. He had been a senior advisor to his Prime Minister father. Papandreou intimately knew what it meant to run a government and he knew it from the inside. Tsipras had been the leader of a marginal, extremist party until last month. Not only does Tsipras have no executive experience, he has never served in either the majority or main opposition in the Greek parliament.
3. Papandreou had faced serious political hardship. He had seen his country occupied by the Nazis. Andreas Papandreou saw his Prime Minster father overthrown and arrested by Greek military officers. Andreas was arrested himself. Tsipras’ experience is the precise opposite of Papandreou’s. In reaction to rule by the military, post-dictatorship Greece was very tolerant of sit-ins, occupations of public buildings, disruptions of transportation networks and even riots (as long as no one was killed - Greek riots had a choreographed quality to them) by leftist activists. Tsipras has only known indulgence.
Andreas Papandreou was an immensely selfish and destructive man, but also a man of significant experience and (self-interested) pragmatism. Alexis Tsipras is no Andreas Papandreou. Greece needs a better class of demagogue. Hopefully Tsipras’ party won’t finish first in tomorrow’s Greek election. It matters.