When defeat is a new beginning

Observations on Greek socialists

George Papandreou, leader of the Pasok socialist party, could perhaps afford to accept last Sunday's election defeat with an aplomb and grace rarely glimpsed at such moments. Pasok was out after 23 years of almost uninterrupted rule in Greece; and Papandreou, who is 51, had lost the first election he had contested as leader (he was formerly the foreign minister).

But the same thing, and at roughly the same age, happened to his father, the inimitable Andreas Papandreou, who founded Pasok out of an anti-junta resistance movement in 1974. He also suffered a crushing defeat when he ran for election the same year, at the start of his post-dictatorship political career. Yet the wily economics professor went on to win three general elections.

The US-born George Papandreou exudes star quality. Whether in power or not, he will continue trying to change the political culture of his bickering Balkan countrymen, stressing the importance of consensus rather than confrontation. His progressive policies and caring-sharing ideals bear more in common with Sweden, where he was schooled, than with his native Greece. It is debatable whether some of his ideas would get airtime even in Britain, where he once lived as a student at the London School of Economics.

This helps to account for the socialists' stunning defeat. Since taking over Pasok, just four weeks ago, the mild-mannered Papandreou has harped on about civil society and minority rights. He has taken the once-unthinkable step of embracing neoliberals. He uses slogans such as "participative democracy", "transparency" and "society of knowledge". Often, his own party cadres hardly understand such concepts - let alone the suggestion that they look "beyond their own fears".

Successive surveys show that the Greek nation is one of the most xenophobic, anti-immigrant in the EU. "Minority" is still a dirty word in a country that resolutely refuses to recognise any non-Orthodox-Christian Hellene other than the Muslim Turks of Thrace. It is testimony to Papandreou's tenacity - and determination to upgrade the quality of Greek democracy - that he chose throughout the election campaign to address such issues. The son of the American feminist Margaret Chant, his approach has what some call emotional intelligence.

It was he, during his five years as foreign minister, who pursued the policy of trying to mend fences with Turkey. His opponent - the conservative New Democrat leader Costas Karamanlis, to whom he wished "every success . . . for the good of all Greece" - adopted much of his conciliatory tone and posture on the issue.

More than anyone, Papandreou knows that Pasok is in much need of a spell detoxifying from the abuses of power. In its latter years most of its "barons" had got arrogant, corrupt and fat.

So his electoral defeat may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It will allow Papandreou to move ahead with what he really wants - a root-and-branch clean-up of the party - and give him the chance to make his daring policies more digestible, both to the electorate and to his own MPs. In conceding defeat, he spoke of a "new beginning". Greece will surely gain in the end.

Helena Smith is the Athens-based correspondent for the Guardian and Observer

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Has America begun to think again?