The sweeping electoral victory won by George Papandreou, leader of the Greek socialist party Pasok, surprised the pollsters. They were all convinced that Papandreou would beat incumbent prime minister Kostas Karamanlis, who heads the rightist New Democracy party, by no more than 6 percent, and that he would fail to win a parliamentary majority. Instead, the Greeks gave Pasok 44 percent of the vote (compared to 34 percent for the right) and an absolute majority of 160 of their parliament's 300 seats.
Papandreou can now get to work. And, indeed, on Monday, he formed a cabinet, announced that he would reduce the number of ministers in his government to 15 and expand certain ministries, and stressed there is not a moment to lose. Unlike his predecessor, he did not ask the public to demonstrate restraint; instead, he urged it to mobilize behind a common effort. The ordinary citizen, he said, will be at the heart of his agenda.
Five years after the leftist government in which Papandreou served as foreign minister lost power - leaving behind a country in good shape, including a successful Olympic Games that boosted both the economy and the national morale - it is getting back an exhausted country in terrible shape. The economy is in recession; unemployment has risen to 9 percent; the deficit exceeds the 3 percent ceiling set by European Union rules, and economists predict it could rise as high as 10 percent; the cost of living has risen. And all that is just part of the picture.
The most destructive factor in Greek life is corruption, and that is what ultimately toppled the outgoing government. Serious incidents that were whitewashed - a minister close to the outgoing premier who was accused of taking a bribe from the owners of a shipping company, another minister who was involved in selling church property - persuaded the Greeks to elect someone else. And the recent fires, which looked like a repeat of the fires in Peloponnesus two years ago (in both cases, police are investigating the possibility that at least some were set deliberately, to facilitate the sale of public lands), tipped the scales decisively.
Israelis, who view the cradle of Western civilization mainly through the panoramic views of the Greek isles, are generally unaware of how deep Greece's socioeconomic problems are, or of to what extent, despite its deeply rooted democratic tradition, the constant dangers of anarchy on one hand and a violent, anti-democratic coup on the other hover over it. Now Greece is giving Israel a lesson: It has proven that the system of two big parties, one left and one right - which, here, has degenerated into micro-parties representing the right, center-right and center-center - actually works, and that even a fat, bourgeois socialist party, which in the past was plagued by corruption, can use clear leftist language and offer an agenda utterly different from that of its conservative rival.
Karamanlis, as is the way of the right, tried to divert the campaign into discussions of diplomatic tensions and threats of an economic crisis. But Papandreou, a sociologist who specialized in migrants' rights, insisted on talking about society. Karamanlis promised austerity and a wage freeze; Papandreou - who as education minister allocated reserved spots for Muslims in academia and founded the Open University, and as foreign minister was responsible for a major improvement in relations with Turkey and Albania - promised to increase taxes on the rich, reduce them for the lowest deciles, streamline the civil service, increase transparency and more.
The challenges he faces are enormous. And even though the EU will support him, his ability to effect change, given Greece's cumbersome, corrupt bureaucracy and its fragmented society, will immediately be put to an onerous test. But so far, he is radiating the calm confidence characteristic of this son and grandson of former great leaders. And that provides another interesting lesson for Israel: One could describe the top ranks of Greece's government as a paradise for nepotists, but one can also understand this phenomenon, given the tradition that obligates the elites to obtain an education, be socially involved and engage in public service. Papandreou absorbed political ideology and tactics with his mother's milk. He is not deterred by hard work, nor is he eager to "earn money for his family."
If Papandreou succeeds, Greece will be rescued from the political and economic isolation to which its previous government sentenced it. With enthusiastic support from the American president, and in conjunction with the socialists in Spain and Portugal - as well as with the EU, which speaks in the clear language of human rights - he will provide Israel with another reminder that the Bush era, in terms of both foreign and economic policy, is over.
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