Old democracy, new economy – is this a fresh start for Greece?

A reliable source once told me a story (a story I couldn’t be bothered to verify) that Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou drove into the courtyard of a fancy hotel at a summit of European leaders in the late 1980s. As he got out of the limousine, the windows of a box on the fourth floor of the hotel opened, and Charles Haughey, the Taoiseach, or Prime Minister of Ireland, appeared, exclaiming at the top of his voice, 'Andreas Papandreou, you are my. Hero!’.

In many respects, Hauge is right, he and Papandreou were very much alike – clever and corrupt, leaders of major grassroots political parties (political scientists compare Fianna Fail and Pasok, the party founded by Papandreou, to enduring political machines in Europe).

Both Haughey and Papandreou had interesting personal lives and tastes – Haughey sent £14,000 (a lot of money back then!) worth of chardonnay shirts to the Irish state. Papandreou was dean of economics at Stanford, but could not manage the Greek economy, and then his personal life. I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time in Greece in the late 1990s, when the behavior of Papandreou’s third wife, 'Mimi’, sparked much debate.

Both can be said to have paved the way for their countries to act in the early 2000s, but both sowed the seeds for the decline of their economies in the post-2007 period. In both cases, dominant political parties have been reduced to much smaller parties.

dynasties

This was evident in last week’s Greek election – the share of the vote received by Pazok rose from 8% to 11%, a shadow of the machine. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the son of Andreas Papandreou’s political rival Konstantos Mitsotakis, won a stunning victory and will do even better in a second election at the end of June, an apparent preference among Greeks for long-term economic growth.

As an aside, in the dynastic context of Greek politics, note that Andreas’ son, George Papandreou, took over Pazok when Greece was mired in the euro-zone debt crisis — and to reinforce the notion of dynastic politics, George Papandreou was also room-mate of Antonios Samaras at Amherst — from 2012-2015 to the new Democratic Prime Minister!

Having known Greece well in the 1990s, I visited during the 'Troika’ period. There is insufficient recognition of the ravages of the Greek economy and its society, Greece’s own transgressions, the Euro-zone crisis and the medicine administered by the IMF and the EU. It’s a good thing that a country that suffered the worst depression in modern history is now starting to enjoy years of strong growth.

Greek society and the way the country is run has changed, though there are echoes of some of the things I remember from the news in the 1990s – corruption in procurement and transport (caused by a train crash in northern Greece in February) and more corruption scandals out there.

Bond yields

Mitsotakis’ big challenge now is not to sustain the upturn in the economy – investors are already reassessing it (bond yields are lower than in Italy and the UK) but to make decisive departures based on past performance. How the state works. The other obvious (in my experience) area for reform is education – especially in creating a better secondary and tertiary education system so that young people are happy to stay in Greece for their education and then work there.

A new development for Greece is a change in the fortunes and behavior of its larger neighbors. In the 1990s, there was continued tension between Turkey and Greece over both Cyprus and the small Greek islands off the Turkish coast, resulting in frequent close contact between the Greek and Turkish air forces. Recyyp Erdogan took power just before Greece was due to host the Olympics, and for a long time the performance of the Turkish economy, the scope of its infrastructure building and its growing role as a role model for Middle Eastern states have overshadowed Greece.

Turkey’s progress has been squandered, and its economy is now not far from crisis. The worry for Greece is that Erdogan is trying to create tension with Greece to distract from the consequences of his own long term in office. While the Greeks are used to it (both Mitsotakis and Alexis Tsipras have handled relations with Turkey well), it can be an unnecessary complication when things are going the right way.

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