Is George Papandreou coming back?

Is George Papandreou coming back?

When George Papandreou came to Istanbul last week to attend a concert by Zülfü Livaneli, he was welcomed by both Turks and Istanbul Greeks with great warmth and a strong sense of nostalgia.

The older ones remembered his readiness as foreign minister to send immediate help to Turkey after the terrible 1999 earthquake. And then his effort - together with his Turkish counterpart, the late Ismail Cem - to initiate a diplomacy based on people-to-people tagged in diplomatic handbooks ever since as “earthquake diplomacy.”

Then, more than two decades ago, the Papandreou-Cem diplomatic duo had won high popularity and had created hope that there was an alternative way to solve chronic bilateral problems through bringing societies together. As it turned out, the problems between Greece and Turkey not only remained unsolved but multiplied and became too complex for easy solutions. Two decades after natural disasters that brought the two peoples closer, politics and geostrategic priorities have pushed them very much to the background.

Papandreou came to Istanbul to attend a special music event in memory of Mikis Theodorakis, who died in September, organized by Livaneli, the composer and friend of the late artist. Before the experiment with earthquake diplomacy of Papandreou-Cem, Theodorakis and Livaneli had tried cultural diplomacy, bringing the peoples of the two countries together through music and culture. As with the earthquake diplomacy, people do come together, but, in the end, you need strong political visionaries to make decisive steps. In their time, Papandreou and Cem read the mutual exchange of sympathy between ordinary Greeks and Turks and encouraged it. Then it had looked so easy to do. Now it looks extremely difficult.

But the memory of those peaceful and hopeful times is still alive among many Turks. Cem is sadly no longer with us, but Papandreou is and remains a known and popular figure in this country, as we observed during Livaneli’s concert, with so many people rushing to greet him.

Probably very few who spoke to Papandreou last week in Harbiye Open Theater knew that this popular former foreign minister during 1999-2004, but also a much-criticized and short-lived prime minister in 2009, is preparing for a major political come back. One day after returning from Istanbul, Papandreou announced his candidacy for the contest for the leadership of the Movement for Change (KINAL), a coalition of center-left parties formed in 2018 that includes his old party PASOK.

He is not running alone, though; six more candidates had already declared their intention for the position held by Fofi Gennimata, a popular female politician who had initiated the process for renewing the contest for the leadership of KINAL earlier this year. However, Gennimata, who was admitted to hospital for a recurrent cancer, withdrew dramatically from the contest and died last Monday leaving her family and colleagues devasted.

Two days after Gennimata’s unfortunate death, the race for the leadership of the center-left started in earnest. The people who had voted for KINAL will probably miss Gennimata’s unifying approach to keep the movement together. But it is known that there are deep differences among the contestants to the party leadership. Some, like Papandreou, would like to stick to his socialist principle and would not consider joining forces with the conservative governing party of New Democracy, if needed. Others might. While speaking to us last week in Istanbul, Papandreou said that he considers that societies should come together and fight common challenges, such as climate change. He speaks more of citizens and society rather than leaders. He did not seem to have changed his basic tenet for rapprochement between Greece and Turkey.

The first round of the elections for the new leader in KINAL was set for Dec. 5, with a second ballot to follow a week later if no one secures a majority. Though, these dates might change due to Gennimata’s death. But whoever comes out as the winner may determine the government in the general elections due in 2023. Because the next elections will be carried out on a simple representational system, and coalitions will probably be on the agenda if no party wins an absolute majority. I think KINAL will be a much sought-after party in the near future.