June 16: On this day in 1952, Greek politician and former Prime Minister George Papandreou was born in Saint Paul, MN.
Papandreou hails from one of the most prominent political dynasties in Modern Greece. George’s grandfather, Georgios, and father, Andreas, both served multiple terms as Prime Ministers of Greece.
Andreas was briefly imprisoned during the military dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas in the late 1930s and early 1940s and once freed he fled, to the United States, where he earned a PhD in 1943 from Harvard University and subsequently taught at there, at the University of California and finally the University of Minnesota where. Due to the constant traveling of his father in his early days, young George Papandreou moved around a lot as a kid, including to Switzerland, and was able to learn English and Swedish fluently in addition to Greek.
When democracy was restored in Greece following the collapse of the military junta that reigned from 1967-1974, the Papandreou family returned and Papandreou went abroad to complete his education by getting his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1975 and in 1977 he earned a master’s degree in sociology from the London School of Economics.
When Andreas founded the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), Papandreou immediately signed up and became an impassioned member. In 1981 at age 29, he was elected to the Hellenic Parliament representing Achaea as a member of PASOK. In the subsequent years he would serve in multiple ministerial positions in his father’s governments of the 1980s and the 1990s. Despite the various ministerial posts, Papandreou’s main focus was always foreign affairs and so most of his portfolio dealt with that subject. He was Minister for Foreign Affairs twice, notably from February 18, 1999 to February 13, 2004 when he played a crucial part, along with New Democracy Athens mayor at the time Dora Bakoyanni, in bringing the Olympic Summer Games back to Greece in 2004.
Following the resignation of PASOK President Costas Simitis, who saw PASOK’s popularity sharply declining to Costas Karamanlis’s New Democracy Party, Simitis recommended Papandreou as the party’s new leader. Although PASOK was decimated at the polls in the fall, Papandreou laid the groundwork for future electoral triumph as the leader of the opposition, which he served as from March 10, 2004 to October 6, 2009. On October 4, 2009, Papandreou’s PASOK defeated Karamanlis’ New Democracy with 43.92% of the popular vote to ND’S 33.48%. The parliamentary seat allocation gave PASOK 160 seats to New Democracy’s 91 and thus gave Papandreou total governmental authority at the beginning of his premiership. However, all was not as it seemed. Upon further investigation, Papandreou’s government found that Karamanlis’ government had inflated and inaccurately presented figures concerning the Greek economy in order to secure loans from international organizations and banks to finance the government and run the country. When it became clear that Greece didn’t have the economic firepower to meet the lenders’ terms in a timely manner, the public began to panic. It occurred at a time when the global economy generally was experiencing recession. Papandreou was told that Greece had a public debt of close to $500 billion and a yearly deficit in GDP that was four times than what the Eurozone limit was at nearly 13%. With unemployment quickly rising in the double digits, Papandreou set in motion plans to combat tax evasion, reducing spending, increasing taxes and generally wanting to approve measures of fiscal austerity. Those are all perfectly logical things to consider in that situation however the sweeping reforms and changes that were being mulled by the Papandreou government resulted in massive nationwide strikes across all sectors of the economy. Despite shuffling and reshuffling his cabinet as the months wore and international credit organizations began to descend on Greece demanding a concrete plan of action and debt repayments, the Greek people that had given Papandreou a strong electoral mandate in October, 2009 turned their backs on him and lost confidence in his leadership and party. On October 31, 2011 Papandreou stunned the Greek political world and Europe as a whole when announced that he was to put the acceptance of the Eurozone deals that lay before him to a public referendum. Seeing the fierce negative backlash from the international community and from members of his own party, Papandreou scrapped the idea and on November 5 only narrowly won a confidence vote in Parliament. Because of that razor-thin margin of victory, Papandreou was in essence finished as Prime Minister and opposition leader Antonis Samaras of New Democracy demanded a national unity government be formed on the condition that Papandreou resign as Prime Minister. Papandreou acquiesced and on November 11, 2011 technocrat Lucas Papademos was sworn in as prime minister of the interim national unity government of Greece. Antonis Samaras would himself be Prime Minister after interim governments led by the aforementioned Papademos and Panagiotis Pikrammenos.
Since 2011, Papandreou left PASOK in a move that surprised many and he announced his own political party on January 2, 2015 known as the Movement of Democratic Socialists. Later that year it was announced that due to not being able to stand on its own politically, that party joined forces with PASOK, the Democratic Left, and two smaller civil coalitions that were dedicated to leftist policies and European liberalism. Papandreou remains in that coalition as he attempts his political comeback. He has been married to Ada Papapanou since 1989 and has a daughter with her, named Margarita-Elena, and a son, Andreas, from his previous marriage with Eva Zissimidou.