George Papandreou has enjoyed a lucrative stint on the international lecture circuit since being forced from office in 2011 at the height of Greece's sovereign debt crisis. Now, the former prime minister is preparing to jump back into politics as leader of a "wild card" party that could swing the outcome of the country's snap general election on January 25th.
Mr Papandreou (65), the scion of a Greek political dynasty, has so far delayed making a formal announcement amid reports that most of his former associates have refused to cut their ties to the PanHellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) founded by his father to join a centre-left splinter group. However, a senior Papandreou aide confirmed on Thursday the party would be up and running “within the next two or three days”.
One opinion poll published last week suggested Mr Papandreou’s group could win 4-5 per cent of the vote, taking a small but critical percentage from the current frontrunner, the hard-left Syriza party. If so, that could hand victory to the centre-right New Democracy party of premier Antonis Samaras.
The prospect of a Syriza victory has rattled investors in recent weeks, with concerns the party would cancel the country’s international bailout and halt payment of foreign debt.
Mr Papandreou could also take votes from Pasok itself and To Potami (the river), a moderate left party formed last year. “The election will be a test of Mr Papandreou’s pulling power with undecided voters . . . It will be hard for a new party to gain traction, but it helps that he’s adept at social media,” said one Athens pollster. “It’s quite possible he could play a decisive role in this election.”
Few analysts would have predicted a political comeback for Mr Papandreou, given his abrupt departure. He left office in November 2011 after his controversial proposal for a referendum on the country's European future was rubbished by fellow European leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel, who threatened to let Greece drop out of the euro zone.
Greece accepted an international bailout in 2010, six months after Mr Papandreou took office. Yet he shrugged off responsibility for the country’s financial collapse, instead accusing the previous centre-right government of borrowing recklessly to finance its policies, while claiming Greek interest groups had undermined his attempts at reform.
Since his resignation, the former prime minister has spent much of his time lecturing on crisis management and the politics of austerity at US and Scandinavian universities and addressing gatherings of fund managers and bankers.
He has kept a low profile in Athens, retaining his parliamentary seat in the 2012 election but sitting on the socialists' backbenches, rarely speaking out. Now Mr Papandreou is accused by Pasok stalwarts of trying to destroy Pasok, which held power almost uninterruptedly for over 20 years from 1981, because of his rivalry with Evangelos Venizelos, the outgoing deputy prime minister and current Pasok leader.
In a recent letter to Mr Venizelos published on his website, Mr Papandreou said Pasok had lost touch with its popular base and was “going nowhere”. He proposed holding a party congress followed by a leadership election in which grassroots party supporters could participate.
Mr Venizelos, who has suffered a steady decline in Pasok’s popularity since he became leader in 2011, rejected the idea. “It’s clear the politicians have become disconnected from an electorate that’s exhausted by austerity and angry at the old political system,” said the Papandreou aide. “We’ll be getting back to the grassroots on this campaign, trying to give people hope.”
Support for Pasok has shrunk to historic lows. It finished fourth in May’s European elections – behind the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party – with 8.2 per cent of the vote and surveys put its support at 4-6 per cent. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015