Papandreou takes big gamble with future, and loses

AP News
Posted: Nov 03, 2011 5:11 PM
Papandreou takes big gamble with future, and loses

George Papandreou is used to getting his way.

The scion of Greece's leading political dynasty, he has been comfortable with power from an early age. His father and grandfather were both prime ministers, towering figures in postwar Greece, and like them he has honed the art of the political gamble.

His call for a referendum on Greece's rescue package may have been one gamble too far.

Papandreou on Thursday was forced into a humiliating about-face after returning from the G-20 summit in France to face a mutiny in his own Cabinet over the shock announcement that some have likened to a game of chicken over the future of Europe.

Outwardly mild-mannered and professorial, Papandreou has shared the willful intransigence of his late father, Andreas, and grandfather, also named George.

Like them, he has built a reputation for political risk-taking since taking over the Socialist Party in 2004, winning a general election on his third attempt, staging successful comebacks after commentators had repeatedly written him off.

He's also something of a paradox _ the quintessential insider haunted by a sense of being an outsider.

His childhood in St. Paul Minnesota, where his father taught at university, won him the nickname "George the American." He studied at Amherst College and Harvard University. During anti-government rallies, protesters have chanted "George, Go Home!"

He casts himself as a modernizer out to rid Greece of a legacy of nepotism, and is himself perceived as the ultimate beneficiary of an entrenched system of patronage.

Papandreou has another nickname: "Giorgakis" _ little George. It's a dig at the sense of inherited power and also reflects the growing view that the current prime minister lacks the leadership skills and inspirational charisma of the elder Papandreous.

Papandreou came to power two years ago as the country sank into financial crisis, as the extent of the country's staggering debt _ long concealed through creative accounting _ became apparent to investors and Greece's alarmed eurozone partners.

He appeared determined to adopt an uncompromising leadership style, once associated with his father, who founded the party in 1974.

As George Papandreou's new government desperately sought to save public money, slashing pensions and salaries and heaping new taxes on ordinary Greeks, Socialist dissenters were routinely expelled from parliament, wearing down his majority in parliament from a healthy 10 seats to just two.

The Socialist mandate from its 2009 landslide election victory relentlessly gave way to popular rage, with 90 percent of Greeks now opposing Papandreou's policies and his party polling just 20 percent public support, according to opinion surveys in recent weeks.

Still, Papandreou plowed on, ignoring calls to resign and rebuffing appeals for a power-sharing deal with the opposition Conservatives.

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The growing anti-Papandreou coalition housed radically different agendas: Vehemently anti-EU communists, once pro-Socialist unions, liberals angry at the slow pace of reform, tax payers furious at corruption, opposition parties happy to see the Socialists take a beating for economic austerity.

As his grip on power loosened, Papandreou sought to take his government's tough choices straight to the people _ a bold gambit that is now looking like an act of reckless folly.

The announcement Monday took the world and even his own ministers by surprise. But the longwinded delivery was familiar: an hourlong speech defending his party's actions and principles, ending with the political bombshell.

World markets tanked and European leaders openly expressed their disbelief, but Papandreou stubbornly stuck to arguments.

Back in Athens, Papandreou was immediately confronted by ministers who told him last gamble had backfired. Government officials eventually said the referendum had been dropped.

"At this very difficult moment for Greece, the priorities are clear: We must remain in the euro," Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou said.

The respected conservative daily Kathimerini described him Thursday as the "fatal prime minister."

"The prime minister has lost credibility in Greece and abroad," the newspaper said. "With humiliating consequences for himself and his country, Mr. Papandreou chose to the roll the dice _ and he lost."