Losing confidence in Greek leadership


George Papandreou, Greece's prime minister, speaks to members of the parliament in Athens, Greece. (Angelos Tzortzinis/BLOOMBERG)

If you’re one of the many Americans who haven’t been following the most important news story too many people are ignoring, on Monday Papandreou shocked the world by saying he would put the question of the bailout to the Greek people, setting a referendum vote on the issue. Doing so alarmed the rest of Europe enough that they prompted his opposition to endorse the debt deal, giving Papandreou a way out of the referendum. With the opposition apparently signed on, he seems to have decided there is now little need for a popular vote.

The change of plans is remarkable not only for the high-stakes nature of the news (global economic repercussions are all that’s on the table, after all) but for the rarity of the switch Papandreou pulled. To offer Greek citizens the opportunity to have a say in the outcome of their country—and then to take it away the very next day—is not exactly a confidence-inspiring move. Removing the opportunity for people you lead to voice their opinion is tantamount to saying what they think is irrelevant.

What’s just as bad is how little respect Greek citizens seemed to receive in the process. The fear Europe’s leaders had that—gasp!—Greek citizens might actually be in charge of this decision did not show much confidence in the country’s people. Rather, they appeared to be part of a larger threat, or chess pieces in a bigger political game.

It’s telling that what scared European leaders the most, as the New York Times’ Floyd Norris puts it, was “the specter of democracy,” that oh-so-scary form of government. “Allowing the Greek people a voice in what is happening to them might have forced Europe to make concessions to win a Greek referendum,” Norris writes, “or at least caused it to emphasize or even enhance the parts of the plan that are intended to help the Greek people.” In other words, they might believe their leaders are actually interested in hearing what they think about what’s best for them.

If Greek citizens were against the austerity measures before Papandreou dangled some kind of say on it—and then pulled it away—I’d guess they’re even more against it now. The condescending disregard for Greeks’ opinions may have pulled the opposition onboard. But the feelings of irrelevance many people in Greece are surely feeling will still probably spell trouble for Papandreou and his likely successor.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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