Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou will not only be remembered for having been in office during Greece’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s. He will be remembered as bold and decisive — and unafraid to take unpopular positions, argues Elena Panaritis, a member of Greece’s parliament.
George Papandreou was confident enough to take risks. Few politicians are. His mantra was to convince his fellow Greeks of the need for additional austerity reforms and harsh new belt-tightening measures.
That is an unusual stance for any social democrat to take. But he was willing to sacrifice his office — as in the end he did — to make sure that the right steps would be taken to get his country back on the road to economic recovery.
Despite the dramatic circumstances of his departure, he succeeded as a leader. He took the country’s challenges and tried to develop a bipartisan vision. This is why his decision to resign should be taken as a sign of a rather audacious politician who did not think twice about sacrificing his position for the sake of his country.
In many ways, Papandreou was ahead of his time. He is a 21st-century politician fighting his way through an outdated (19th and 20th century) political system in Greece.
While struggling to rescue a crippled economy at risk of collapsing, he faced rebellion from the opposition parties and resistance from within his own party.
So how will Papandreou be judged by history?
He will be judged as a leader of a country who had the audacity to make changes and solve problems that date back to the 1950s.
He will be identified as a 21st-century leader — a man of vision — who had to fight partisan politics within his own party and within the overall political system in Greece. He was also confronted with a negative public reaction to his economic and public sector reforms.
Papandreou will also be remembered as the canary in the coal mine who warned us about the economic crisis in Greece, across Europe and throughout the world.
As a politician, he was confident enough to take risks. Few would have taken the risk of calling for a referendum. But convincing Greeks of the need for additional austerity reforms and harsh new belt-tightening measures was Papandreou’s main concern.
Was it a mistake? From the perspective that it represented an attempt at direct democracy, it was not a mistake. The problem was the timing. Since they were under so much pressure, it is certainly possible the Greeks would not have responded with a clear mind.
The reasoning, surprising though it may have been for outsiders, was his intention to mend the severed relationship between the state and the Greek people.
Just as Greece’s democracy has evolved over the centuries (it’s nothing like it was back in the 19th or 20th century), Greece’s politicians also need to evolve. This is the only way to strengthen democracy.
Not only do today’s politicians need to heed the public’s gripes and concerns, they also need to respond to the economy in order to withstand its shocks.
In the political arena, leadership is not simply about doing what the opinion polls tell you to do. Strong leadership involves gauging public opinion and forging policies that will actually resolve issues.
Unfortunately, this is not the case today in Europe. Over the past few years, politics in Europe has increasingly lagged behind economic events. Politicians are not paying attention to the markets. All Greeks are being punished by the invisible force of the markets.
Timing and speed is paramount in today’s political arena. Politicians must always stay one step ahead of the markets to prevent catastrophe. This is not only true for Greece, but for the whole of Europe and the world.
Think about it. Even Italy — the world’s seventh-largest economy — now needs to roll over €300 billion in debt next year, two-thirds of which needs to be paid by the beginning of 2012. That’s not small potatoes! It’s like paying off all of Greece’s entire debt in the first three months of 2012.
This is why our politicians and our decision-making process need to evolve to a new level — one where decisions are made rapidly enough to preempt the markets. Greece is no exception. We are in dire need of a leader who will transform the country and put it back on the right course.