Forged by crisis, Greece's parliamentary elections later this month are being framed by two very different choices.
There’s the angry political upstart who wants to tear up the bailout deals that saved the country from financial collapse but enforced strict austerity. "Fiscal waterboarding," he calls it.
On the other end is a caretaker prime minister who begs for restraint. He fears any rash action against Greece’s creditors could send the economy back into the abyss and bump it from the 19-nation group using the euro.
And then there’s the wonky, American-born political scion whom many Greeks called “little George” in his younger days.
He just might end up occupying some important middle ground after the Jan. 25 elections, whose expected outcome has financial markets and European leaders on edge about a possible revival of the Greece’s infectious financial crisis.
Former prime minister George Papandreou -- son of the political firebrand who negotiated Greece’s 1981 entry into what would become the European Union -- has no chance of coming out on top with his newly minted Movement of Democratic Socialists party.
In fact, it could count itself lucky, polls suggest, just to clear the 3 percent threshold to get some seats in parliament.
But even that would be enough to take on the role of wild card.
The reason is that the current leader in the polls, the anti-austerity Syriza party, is not expected to pull in enough support to secure outright control of Greece’s 300-seat chamber. So it will need coalition partners among the smaller parties to reach a majority.
Papandreou’s center-left party may not be the best fit for Syriza, which is promising to seek less painful terms for the huge financial rescue packages that pulled Greece from the brink of bankruptcy. Such warnings from Syriza have rattled European Union heavyweights such as Germany, which helped set the strict aid-for-austerity rules imposed on Greece.
The political matchmaking choices for Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras are not great, however. The array of smaller parties for coalition building includes a centrist group, neo-fascists, unreconstructed Communists and the once-powerful Panhellenic Socialist Movement founded by Papandreou’s father.
If Syriza looks in Papandreou’s direction as one of the potential junior partners, it could bring a major sigh of relief from Brussels and beyond. Papandreou is seen as the type of figure beloved by the bureaucrats and bankers keeping Greece afloat: steady, predictable, non-confrontational.
And possibly able to tone down Tsipras and his combative style.
There’s a certain amount of historical irony in this type of scenario.
Much of Greece’s bad fiscal habits can be traced back to the generation of leaders that included the elder Papandreou, Andreas, a crowd-rousing populist with a Harvard doctorate who helped restore democracy to Greece in 1974 after seven years of rule by a military junta. (Andreas’s father, Giorgos, served three times as prime minister before the military rule.)
Andreas embraced a system of handouts and patronage that became the hallmark of Greek politics for decades as power flopped between the socialists and conservatives. The size of the public payroll swelled. Pensions and state aid grew ever more generous.
It remained glued together while Greece was in control of its financial policies, such as the ability to devalue the drachma. Those options ended when Greece joined the euro zone in 2001. It was only a matter of time before Greece and other struggling euro members -- Spain, Ireland and Portugal atop the list -- found it impossible to pay their bills on their own.
George Papandreou knows all about it. He was foreign minister in the late 1990s and then prime minister from 1999 to 2011 when the fiscal cracks became too big to ignore.
Yet the younger Papandreou -- who was called simply Giorgaki or “little George’’ for years -- seems more at home at a think tank than in the bombastic arena of Greek politics. He shares much of the low-key demeanor of his American mother, who was dumped by Andreas for a much younger Olympic Airways flight attendant.
Few expected George Papandreou to seek a political rebirth after he virtually cut his ties with Greek politics in recent years. He watched from afar as his former college roommate at Amherst, Antonis Samaras, rose to power and became a rival.
Samaras, whose conservative New Democracy party trails Syriza in polls, is now leading the cry for calm. He believes any attempt to unravel the loans and bailout agreements could send Greece back into chaos just as its economy is showing faint signs of life.
But that message only goes so far in a country weary of the layoffs, cutbacks and painful recession that have accompanied the strings-attached rescue packages.
Tsipras calls the austerity rules “unreasonable and catastrophic.”
He knows his audience. In a speech earlier this month in Athens, Tsipras drew comparisons to the world’s postwar accommodations to write off the debt of Germany, which is viewed by many Greeks as the architect of the austerity misery. Many Greeks, too, keep alive the stories of hardships and starvation under German occupation during World War II.
“That’s what was done for Germany.... It should be done for Greece in 2015,” he said.
At the same time, he has tried to deal with his renegade reputation in Germany. In an article published Tuesday in the German business daily Handelsblatt, Tsipras addressed fears among German taxpayers that they will be on the hook for even more bailout money if a Syriza-led government demands changes in the accords.
It will be worse, Tsipras argued, unless Greece can get out from under austerity.
“The truth," he wrote, "is that Greek debt won’t be paid back as long as our economy is continuously exposed to fiscal waterboarding."