Socialist former prime minister supporting Antonis Samaras, his long-time opponent, to ensure Greece stays in single currency
Greece is in urgent need of a “pro-European” government that will navigate the country through its worst crisis in modern times, the former prime minister George Papandreou said two days before an election that has the world on tenterhooks.
As Greeks prepare to cast votes in a poll that has pitted anti-austerity parties against “pro-bailout” forces who have pledged to do whatever it takes to keep the debt-stricken nation in the eurozone, Papandreou warned that Europe would also have to “step up to the mantle” by taking a different approach to the country.
“I hope for the victory of pro-European parties that can create a stable coalition and therefore look at how we can ameliorate the austerity measures,” he told the Guardian. “That would most likely entail extending the [EU-IMF] programme and the extra time would mean we would need more money.”
With the eyes of the world firmly fixed on what happens in Athens on Sunday, the conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras ended an electric campaign telling Greeks that the elevation of the far-left Syriza party to power would mean “catastrophe” for the country.
In the northern city of Thessaloniki, Alexis Tsipras, who heads Syriza, said continued adherence to the arduous terms of the international loan agreement propping up the Greek economy would “mean bankruptcy” for a nation now on its knees.
In one of the many ironies of a crisis that has shifted the political landscape of Greece, the socialist Papandreou now finds himself in effect supporting Samaras, a long-time political opponent, to ensure Greece remains in the single currency.
While political co-operation in a country more divided than most is now crucial – in a ballot in which no party is likely to win an outright majority – so, too, is the need to stop the “patchwork” approach to solving the crisis, he said.
“We need certainty and we need a clear path and that is not something the Greeks alone can do. Europe also has to take up the mantle,” said Papandreou, the first leader to lose his post to the debt drama when he was forced to step aside in November.
“Every step [along the way] we’ve been patching up the problem. The patchwork has to end.”
While secret data released by private polling companies have shown the conservatives to be marginally in the lead, the election – which comes in the wake of an inconclusive ballot on 6 May – has been fraught with tension partly because of “simplistic stereotyping” on the part of Europe.
In recent weeks Greeks have seen a marked rise in violence not least at the hands of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party also projected to win seats in the 300-member parliament.
But since the crisis erupted in Athens within months of his government assuming office in late 2009, Papandreou said his compatriots had been persistently portrayed as profligate and lazy when the problem was as much about the country’s structural flaws as the inherent weaknesses in a monetary union whose “architecture is incomplete”.
“There has been a lot of stereotyping. We have become the point [of reference] for every analyst who wants to prove his or her thesis about the world economy,” said the politician.
“It’s very easy to say that Greece is the problem but we have seen again and again that there is a risk in the system.
“What Greece is facing is what we will see in other countries in Europe. We are only a mirror image of the problems that may occur.”
In the drama that has now brought the nation to the brink of economic, social and political collapse, the US-born Papandreou is often viewed as a tragic figure; a man who, though well-intentioned, ultimately failed in his undertaking to turn Greece from an economic basket case into a vibrant, modern European state.
For his critics the seeds of demise were sown in his inability to rid his own Pasok party of the old-style politicians who kept reform at bay – and his decision in May 2010 to resort to the EU and IMF for rescue funds at great personal cost to ordinary Greeks.
For his supporters, the crisis was simply too big; it catapulted the country into unchartered waters that no man could survive.
In November Papandreou was forced to step aside, making way for an emergency government of “national unity” headed by the technocrat economist Lucas Papademos.
In March he was forced to give up the leadership of Pasok, the party his father had founded out of an anti-junta group after the collapse of military rule in 1974.
Seated behind a large mahogany desk in the quiet of his parliamentary office, the 59-year-old politician admits he has felt a “rollercoaster of emotions.”
“There have been high points and low points,” he says. “But anger is not a good guide. We need to look forward in a calm manner.”
Papandreou insists that, as prime minister, he did “what was humanly possible to keep Greece above water.”
In his nearly two years in office he secured the biggest financial bailout “in history” for Athens with a total €340bn (£220bn) being committed to the country in return for austerity and structural measures that, in many cases, were long overdue. But while there was “the will”, Greece, he claimed, lacked the capacity to implement such change.
“I said from the very beginning to the European commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank [the "troika" of creditors propping up the economy] that while we have the will, we don’t have the administrative ability [to enforce such measures],” he said.
“We had to use Google Earth to locate pools, we had to use electricity bills to tax property as we did not have a civil service capable of doing such things.”
It took a year before the EU agreed to assign a special task force to Athens to help deal with the problem.
In the same vein, the German chancellor Angela Merkel miscalculated the role of the markets, instead believing they would “behave logically.”
“I came to believe, and believe even more today, that no matter what Greece did the markets would not leave it alone until Europe looked at its own [internal] contradictions.”
It is not lost on Papandreou that Sunday’s make or break vote is being regarded as a referendum of the desire of Greeks to remain in the eurozone.
In a giddying series of events the politician was forced to stand down after his bombshell decision last October to call a referendum on the unpopular terms of the bailout package agreed by the EU and IMF.
“From the summer of 2011 we had been talking about a referendum,” he said revealing that both Angela Merkel and the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy were fully aware of his plans to put the accord to popular vote.
“They understood that I was moving ahead with a referendum and they agreed with it,” said Papandreou, adding that if a plebiscite been held at the time it would have removed the uncertainty that has come to haunt Greece and Europe.