24 June 1996

Strongman of the left
who returned from
exile to recast
Greek democracy

Greece’s most colourful politician since the second World War, Andreas George Papandreou, was born on the Greek island of Chios

By Patrick Comerford

Greece’s most colourful politician since the second World War, Andreas George Papandreou, was born on the Greek island of Chios – the birthplace of Homer – on February 5th, 1919. His father, George Papandreou, became prime minister in the 1960s.

As a law student at Athens University, the young Andreas Papandreou became involved in radical, left wing politics, and was jailed and tortured under the pre war Metaxas dictatorship. He left for the US in 1940, and completed a PhD at Harvard before joining the US navy and becoming a US citizen. After the war, he taught economics at Harvard, became a professor at Minnesota and later at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the US, he came under the influence of John Kenneth Galbraith and was closely associated with Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic Party, and there he met and married Margaret Chant. Their four children include the present Education Minister, George Papandreou.

After almost 20 years in exile he returned to Greece on a Fulbright scholarship in 1959 and in 1961 became director of the newly founded Centre for Economic Research and an adviser to the Bank of Greece.

He was first elected as a deputy for his father's Centre Union in February, 1964, and was appointed Minister to the Prime Minister. But he was soon accused of plotting a coup with left wing army officers. The allegations coincided with the withdrawal of the future conservative prime minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, and others from Centre Union – Papandreou later described Mitsotakis as ‘my own arch enemy, the tall, ruthless Cretan who had sown the seeds of our destruction.’

The crisis brought the colonels to power in 1967, and Papandreou was jailed from April to December 1967. Mitsotakis was released after promising to quit politics for life, but Papandreou was detained and tortured until influential Democrats persuaded Lyndon Johnson to intervene. Johnson told a White House reception: ‘I just told those Greek bastards to lay off that commie son of a bitch, whatever his name is.’

He went into exile in Sweden, where he briefly held a professor ship at Stockholm University before moving to Canada, and for five years he was Professor of Economics at York University. In exile he founded the Panhellenic Liberation Movement (PAK), later the nucleus for his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok).

With the fall of the colonels he returned to Greece in 1974 and founded Pasok. In the first election, the new party garnered only 12 per cent of the vote and 12 seats, but Papandreou set to work on building a web of party activists in every town, village and island. In 1977, Pasok doubled its vote, and Papandreou became official leader of the opposition. In 1981, campaigning on the slogan Allaghi (Change), it was swept to power. Papandreou became the country's first socialist prime minister, breaking the right's post war grip on power and becoming an enduring hero to the left. Four years later, Papandreou and Pasok comfortably won a second term.

Between 1981 and 1989, he embraced Third World radicals such as Libya's Col Gadafy, antagonised the US and castigated his EU partners. His radical domestic reforms included civil marriage, a lower voting age, greater rights for women and the abolition of the death penalty. And yet he was strongly nationalist at all times, taking tough stands on Macedonia, Cyprus, and Turkish claims in the Aegean, and demanding the removal of US military bases. However, the government was marred by allegations of scandals corruption, and financial embezzlements, revelations about his private life, and his ill health. Papandreou was absent for two months in 1988 when he went to London for triple bypass open heart surgery performed by Sir Magdi Yacoub. In London as he fought for his life, an Olympic Airways hostess half his age, Dimitri Liani, kept vigil by his hospital bedside.

The pair shocked the nation when they publicly flaunted their affair. Shortly after his election defeat at the hands of Constantine Mitsotakis and his New Democracy in June 1989, Mr Papandreou divorced Margaret, his American wife of 38 years, and married Ms Liani, by then popularly known as Mimi and deeply unpopular within the ranks of Pasok and throughout Greece.

But even in his worst days in opposition, during three election defeats in 1989 and 1990, he could still pull 40 per cent of the popular vote. In 1992 he was cleared of charges relating to a $200 million bank embezzlement and at the same time, Ms Liani (temporarily) gave up her flashy clothes and carefree ways. But it seemed a career that began with promise and privilege had come to an end.

And yet he defied all the pundits when returned to power in 1993 with a landslide victory over his old rival Mitsotakis - the two had been lampooned in the Greek press as battling septuagenarian dinosaurs. But he was frail and unable to put in a full day's work. He antagonised many long-time supporters and soon found himself under fire from dissenters within Pasok when he appointed his wife as chief of staff, his son as junior foreign minister, his wife's cousin as junior culture minister and his personal physician, Dimitris Kremastinos, as health minister.

The Greek presidency of the EU at the beginning of 1994 should have been a personal triumph, but late that year the charismatic former European Affairs Minister, Mr Theodoros Pangalos, resigned from the cabinet, and within weeks Pasok fared badly in local elections. However, the greatest personal setback may have been the death of the former culture minister, Ms Melina Mercouri.

By now he seldom chaired cabinet meetings, and was hardly ever seen in parliament. All access to the prime minister, even for cabinet ministers was controlled by Mimi and trusted members of her entourage, including her mother, her brother, an Orthodox priest, and her personal astrologer.

The astrologer predicted that the last 10 days of November would be crucial for Mr Papandreou's health, and at the end of November he was rushed to the top Athens Onassis Heart Centre; with pneumonia. For weeks he was kept alive on a respirator and a dialysis machine, and hundreds of supporters camped outside the hospital for days. He survived Christmas and into the New Year, but their best wishes were to no avail.

He resigned on January 15th and was replaced as prime minister by Mr Costas Simitis, although he retained the title of party president. Eventually he left hospital after four months, only four days before Greece's national day.

As he left, he told boisterous supporters: ‘With love, I'm leaving from this.’ He was escorted by Ms Liani, who smiled and said he was unable to say more. He waved feebly from the back seat, where he sat expressionless as he was driven away.

Ms Liani, who has accused her husband's children and ex-wife of orchestrating attacks against her, is expected to be exiled at the luxury pink villa she built for herself in the posh Athens suburb of Ekali at astronomical cost.

History may not judge Mr Papandreou on his last term in office. Certainly, he has transformed Greek politics radically and to the core.

Pasok, with 170 of the 300 seats in parliament, has a secure majority that will ensure it survives until, next year, when Mr Papandreou’s term was due to end. But Mr Papandreou leaves deep divisions within Pasok, and Mr Simitis has an uphill battle to take control of the party leadership over the next few weeks. The party faithful only hope that he can get party affairs back into shape in time to win the next election.

This obituary was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 24 June 1996

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