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Third time’s a charm for Papandreou in Greek elections

Published on 05/10/2009

Athens — Greek socialist leader George Papandreou, winner of Sunday’s national elections, is an internationalist who pledges to restore confidence to a cash-strapped country battered by scandals.

The son and grandson of prime ministers, and formerly known as the foreign minister who engineered a historic rapprochement with traditional rival Turkey, Papandreou is now called to save Greece from looming recession.

Taking a page from US President Barack Obama’s election strategy, he has formulated a 100-day plan to stimulate the market and pledges to negotiate a new stability pact with the European Commission.

After faltering in elections in 2004 and 2007, the politician born in the US state of Minnesota now becomes the third Papandreou to lead Greece in six decades.

A sociologist by training and declared admirer of the Swedish social model, he took measures as minister to help the marginalised Muslim minority of Turkish origin living in northern Greece.

He was also an early proponent of the legalisation of cannabis and favours civil union for homosexuals — both thorny issues in a country where the Orthodox Church is a powerful force.

The Papandreou dynasty founder, his grandfather and namesake George Papandreou (1888-1968), was the country’s first post-liberation premier after the German wartime occupation ended in 1944.

A few years later Andreas Papandreou (1919-1996) left an even bigger imprint on Greek politics, helming three more administrations and becoming legendary for antagonising the United States and seeking to pull Greece into the non-aligned movement.

The younger George Papandreou, nicknamed ‘Georgie’ by the press, had to work hard to convince the country of his leadership qualities, having spent the early part of his political career under the shadow of his outspoken father, who gave him his first junior minister’s post at the age of 33.

Born to an American mother and spending formative years in Canada and Sweden, George Papandreou’s has been accused for years by political opponents of being in Washington’s pocket. Derisive comments about his command of the Greek language persist to this day.

But even critics cannot deny that he was also the foreign minister who improbably succeeded in mending fences with Turkey a decade ago.

Just five years after the two regional rivals had nearly gone to war over an uninhabited string of Aegean islets, Papandreou famously spun a traditional Anatolian dance with his Turkish counterpart Ismael Cem in the spirit of Greece’s unexpected decision to support Turkey’s European Union candidacy.

"I feel this relationship has (since) lost pace," he told AFP in an interview ahead of the election. "There must be a new effort."

Widely seen as soft-spoken and affable, Papandreou is nevertheless a determined fighter.

Two years ago, he led the socialists to their worst electoral showing in three decades against a conservative government on the defensive after 77 people had died in the worst wildfire disaster in memory.

He was written off as a failure and even pro-socialist papers were baying for his blood. His image was not helped by a bad bicycle accident in April 2008 in which he injured his back and fractured a finger.

But after winning a party vote, he was nevertheless able to consolidate his position and went on to lead his Pasok party to victory in June’s European Parliament elections — his first against Karamanlis.

He holds degrees from Amherst College in Massachusetts, Stockholm University and the London School of Economics and is an honorary fellow at Harvard University’s centre for international affairs.