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Sunday, February 15, 2004



When I first met the leaders of Greece’s two major parties, Kôstas Karamanlês and George Papandreou, I would have had a hard time imagining either one as Greece’s prime minister. In the ensuing years, however, we have witnessed a sea change in Greece’s political culture. The once-acclaimed leadership style of their own forebears, blunt and gruff in the case of Kônstantinos Karamanlês (Kôstas’s famous uncle) and grandiloquently charismatic in the case of Andreas Papandreou (George’s equally famous father), is history. Greece is now looking to young, “modern” politicians capable of leading the country into a new political era.

The Greek media are awash with talk of these elections being all about Greece entering a new era. Both parties claim that everything will, apparently, be “new” the day after March 7: the Greek polity will somehow “change,” becoming more open to and solicitous of the voice and views of ordinary citizens; the state will pay special attention to its younger groups of citizens; and, along with a new domestic political ethos, the government will forge a new, modern strategy for the new issues that confront the European Union in an era of expansion. And a new era will also dawn for Cyprus, with its accession to the European Union on May 1 — this last political novelty being, perhaps, the most believable one, although it will affect Greece only indirectly.

The contours, never mind the content, of this new era may be fuzzy, but there is no doubt that the idea has become the defining metaphor for the elections. And it’s shaping the electoral campaign in obvious ways. One columnist complained that television’s political talk shows were exclusively concerned with hosting young candidates from the two major parties, preferably female (proof enough that things are changing) and “good-looking,” according to the male reporter (proof that some things have not changed). Another columnist announced that the rise of Greece’s new generation was the country’s answer to America’s baby-boomers, who have been running the show in the US since Clinton’s election in 1992.

The evidence — however one wants to interpret it — is there for all to see. Even a cursory look at the three Greek satellite stations available abroad would confirm the predominance of young party representatives on the shows, with PASOK’s articulate, 39-year old Milena Apostolakê and New Democracy’s smooth-talking, 38-year old Arês Spêliotopoulos in their respective roles as poster-girl and -boy of this new generation of politicians. But it is, of course, the two major party leaders who are the standard-bearers of the new, young era. Kôstas Karamanlês, at 48, and George Papandreou (who is four years older) are indeed very young by Greek standards, although not so by those of several other European countries. Everything is relative, and one should bear in mind that Greece’s politics in the recent past have been run by a (male) gerontocracy whose dates of birth would have put the old Soviet leadership to shame. In the 1990 elections, for example, 72-year-old Constantine Mêtsotakês led New Democracy to victory over PASOK, itself led by 71-year-old Andreas Papandreou. The same year, Kônstantinos Karamanlês (who had been prime minister between 1955 and 1963, and again between 1974 and 1980) was elected to the presidency, two months after his eighty-third birthday. Three years later, in 1993, Mêtsotakês and Papandreou fought it out again; this time, the 74-year-old Papandreou defeated the 75-year old Mêtsotakês — and Karamanlês was still president.

All this talk about an impending political transformation has a familiar ring to everyone who watched the 1981 electoral campaign, which Andreas Papandreou won. He’d promised “allagê” (change) and allagê there definitely was, with Greece getting its first left-of-center government, a more militant-sounding and independent foreign policy, and a new, younger political elite more attentive to the needs of the lower middle class. (On a more poignant note, Papandreou also oversaw the long-overdue rehabilitation of the wartime left-wing resistance.) The year 1981 was certainly a turning-point, although in the long run it didn’t turn out to be quite the type of revolution Papandreou had proclaimed. The elections that followed, continually won by PASOK with the exception of a deadlock in 1989 and a New Democracy win in 1993, were all about Greece “staying the course” or “responding to new challenges” — and had nothing of this year’s “we-are-on-the-threshold-of-a-new-future” atmosphere.

Surprisingly, it was the incumbent party that inaugurated the loudest call for change, a prima facie oxymoronic — but also very astute — tactic for a party that has ruled the country for most of the past twenty-odd years. The rhetoric of the “new” was inaugurated by prime minister and former PASOK president Kôstas Sêmitês last January, when he announced he was stepping down from the party’s presidency immediately. Since, in Greece, leading a party also entails leading the government, this meant that Sêmitês would not continue as prime minister, even if PASOK won in March. “This is a new era,” Sêmitês said in a nationally televised address, “and the new era for PASOK demands a younger generation that will take on the necessary responsibilities.” He then nominated George Papandreou to be his successor at PASOK’s helm.

George took the new-era and new-generation rhetoric, and ran with it. The very next day, on radio, he spoke about his vision of a new PASOK and how it would appeal to younger voters. “I know the younger generation has a critical perception of politics and political parties — and perhaps they are right,” he told his interviewer, journalist Yiannis Roubatis. “I want especially to invite the younger generation to participate in this endeavor,” he added, “because we are creating something new. And I want them to play a fundamental role in formulating the priorities of the future. It is a wonderful opportunity for them to breathe new life into politics.”

I’ve met George Papandreou several times, in the sedate atmosphere of institutions of higher learning, including Harvard (where he’s been a visiting fellow) and, more recently, under the shade of cypress and olive trees on the International Olympic Academy’s quiet campus in ancient Olympia. He is extraordinarily approachable and loves to exchange ideas. But this Amherst College- and London School of Economics-trained sociologist would be far better off trying to breathe life into a graduate seminar rather than Greek politics — that is, the old fire-and-brimstone, balcony-speech style of politics that both his father, Andreas, and grandfather, also named George, mastered so impressively. Or it may be that the new politics are tailor-made for the soft-spoken and thoughtful son of the master communicator.

Indeed, Papandreou appears to be gaining an edge over his rival. It’s not that Karamanlês is doing badly; on the contrary, he seems to be the right person for the right moment, and he is as approachable, calm, and thoughtful as Papandreou. When I met Kôstas Karamanlês for the first time, we had both just completed our doctorates and were embarking on teaching careers — on a low rung of the teaching food-chain — in a program for US college students spending their semester abroad in Greece. I was savvy enough to know, of course, that this was but a temporary stepping-stone for Kôstas; after all, if you’re the nephew of one of the country’s most famous statesmen, it’s unlikely that you’d choose a career that consists of grading student papers over one that involves running for parliament.

Yet I was totally unprepared for Kôstas’s warmth and informality. We sat in his modestly sized apartment off Michalakopoulou Street, a central but certainly not fashionable location in Athens, and talked academic shop. He’d just completed a dissertation on Greek prime minister Eleutherios Venizelos’s foreign policy between 1928-1932 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and he was preparing to publish it as a book. When the discussion inevitably touched on the political scene, Kôstas was as talkative — and remarkably frank. He said that one of the main obstacles New Democracy faced in broadening its appeal was that its leadership was dominated by a group of old-guard politicians. Karamanlês was able to do something about that when he became New Democracy’s president in 1997 and led the party in the 2000 elections. He gave the party a livelier, younger image and relied on rational arguments rather than fiery rhetoric in the campaign, then lost by the narrowest of margins to the equally low-key — but more experienced and older — PASOK incumbent, Kôstas Sêmitês.

Since then, and until a few months ago, Karamanlês has watched his party soar above PASOK in the polls as his public image has begun to catch up to that of the widely respected Sêmitês. But the Papandreou-for-Sêmitês move by PASOK in January 2004 gave Papandreou enough momentum with which to outflank Karamanlês and steal his we-need-political-change-now thunder. PASOK engineered an impressive, grassroots, members-and-friends vote, in which over a million people confirmed George as the new party president, while he described this as a sign, both of the new, open PASOK’s evolution and of the participatory politics to be introduced by a PASOK electoral victory. In a clever move, PASOK reduced the minimum age of those eligible to vote for the party’s leader to sixteen, two years younger than the official (electoral) voting age. A recent poll confirmed that Papandreou was apparently more popular than Karamanlês, leading by 10 percent, among the 14-18 age group.

Despite all this, New Democracy still holds a lead over PASOK in the polls, although PASOK has been closing the gap during the past few weeks. Kôstas Karamanlês now faces a dilemma. His nice-young-guy style was paying handsome dividends as long as the older Sêmitês was still leading PASOK and New Democracy was poised to win an election suffused with the rhetoric of change and youthfulness. Pressed by PASOK’s current rhetoric about the new and the young, Karamanlês has shunted aside such party veterans as Petros Molyviatês and Iôannês Varvitsiôtês (his uncle Kônstantinos’s loyal lieutenants). But he has to fight harder if he is not to lose this “innovation-and-youth” election to an opponent who is actually a few years older than he is. (If Karamanlês wins on March 7, he will join his uncle Kônstantinos, who was 48 when appointed to the post in 1955, as the youngest Greek prime minister.)

If Karamanlês is to compete successfully against Papandreou, he will have to go beyond the baby-boomers and the politics-of-the-young-and-new rhetoric. That is exactly what Papandreou is doing. The process of Papandreou’s elevation to the PASOK presidency — a party conference in a newly built indoor sports stadium, the nationwide grassroots election, and his visit to the Thessalian village of Kileler (the site of a famous agrarian revolt almost a century ago), where Papandreou “received the results” and then spoke with farmers — was as much about the “old” as the “new.” For example, at the opening of the special congress in the stadium, Papandreou did not take his usual place alongside the rest of the leadership, but sat in the bleachers with the party’s youth section. When he addressed the meeting, however, he was quick to invoke his father’s name, which brought the delegates to their feet. He did the same in his address to the farmers in Kileler.

This election, or at least the election campaign, is not all about the young and the new, therefore. George’s appeal owes a great deal to the aura of the great helmsman himself, Andreas Papandreou, whose name still evokes the type of enthusiasm he could whip up in his fiery speeches. It may be that, for Kôstas Karamanlês to win this contest, he, too, will have to put his own style to the side and start evoking the old family name a little more loudly.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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