Saturday, February 28, 2004

XANTHI, Greece — In suede jacket, flannel shirt and trademark scarf, the man campaigning to be Greece’s next prime minister and lead the country for the Socialist Party works his way through a crowd of farmers.

“There he is, there he is,” they cheer as George Papandreou shakes hands, walking from his campaign bus to a makeshift podium alongside a crumbling provincial highway.

It’s campaigning Papandreou style — a get-out-with-the-people approach more akin to American politics than to the traditional Greek politicians’ reliance on mass rallies, and has some commentators likening the U.S.-born foreign minister to one of his friends, Bill Clinton.

“It’s Clintonism adapted to the needs of a Balkan nation,” Pantelis Boukalas wrote in the Athens newspaper Kathimerini.

The Socialists have dominated Greek politics for more than two decades, but they find themselves trailing the conservative opposition in opinion polls, 42 percent to 47 percent, heading toward the March 7 national election.

The party is pinning its hopes on Mr. Papandreou, the son of a longtime political family who as foreign minister has won wide popularity for his success in reducing decades of tension with neighboring Turkey.

Mr. Papandreou’s late father, Andreas, founded the Socialist Party in the 1970s, served as prime minister three times and built one of Europe’s most tightly run political machines. Mr. Papandreou’s grandfather and namesake, George, was prime minister in the 1960s.

The younger Mr. Papandreou, however, faces a political and social landscape that bears little resemblance to the poor Mediterranean backwater that first elected his father in 1981.

Once-fiery Socialist revolutionaries have been transformed by 20 years of European Union-funded growth into middle-aged fiscal conservatives. Their market-oriented policies have blurred the line separating them from the conservatives of the New Democracy party.

Mr. Papandreou, 51, widely referred to as Georgaki, or Little George, is selling himself as a change for voters tired of both his own Socialists and the conservatives. He promises to bring fresh faces into politics and overhaul a government system based on patronage.

Yet he is blunting the message by avoiding direct confrontation with the Socialist Party bosses whose help he needs to get elected.

And so far, there’s little to differentiate Mr. Papandreou from the opposition.

The conservatives say they will continue his opening to Turkey. Mr. Papandreou promised to reduce the corporate tax rate to 30 percent; New Democracy promised a cut to 25 percent. He pledged higher pensions for retired farmers; the conservatives promised more.

Still, the Greek media are lapping up Mr. Papandreou’s style as he carries his campaign message into small towns and backwaters across the country.

Television stations broke away from regular programming to show Mr. Papandreou in Xanthi during a recent swing through northern Greece. His every move was covered — jogging, holding town meetings, rolling up his sleeves to talk with students.

“Papandreou looks young, he wears scarves, he has spoken in favor of decriminalizing narcotics. Things like this are pure sugar for the media,” said Mihalis Meimaris, a professor of communication at the University of Athens.

Critics, however, contend Mr. Papandreou’s approach is shallow and offers no substance for addressing the corruption, cronyism and high unemployment that have dogged the Socialists for years. Per-capita gross domestic product is less now than when Greece joined the European Union in 1981, they note, and ask what he plans to do about it.

Mr. Papandreou’s U.S. roots could prove a problem in a nation with a deep anti-American streak. His mother is American and he was born in Minnesota while his father was teaching in the United States. He went to high school in Illinois and got a degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Mr. Papandreou depends on an inner circle that includes many Greeks from abroad. One influential Socialist — former Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos — once quipped that English was the official language in Mr. Papandreou’s office.

While lifestyle and image are overshadowing traditional ideological rivalries, it’s the same old families fighting the battle.

New Democracy’s leader, Costas Caramanlis, 47, is also from an influential political family. His uncle, the late Constantine Caramanlis, served as both prime minister and president, and other family members were politicians, too.

Mr. Caramanlis, however, can’t rival Mr. Papandreou’s pizzazz. He is austere in tight-fitting suits and shiny ties, and he usually hits the campaign trail in an armored limousine.

“When I watch Papandreou on television, it’s a soothing experience. When I watch Caramanlis, I get more tense,” said George Siafaris, a Greek-American businessman from Los Angeles.

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