An excerpt from Kevin Featherstone and Dimitris Papadimitriou’s book, Prime Ministers in Greece: the Paradox of Power

Prime Ministers in Greece: The Paradox of Power (OUP, 2015)

Kevin Featherstone and Dimitris Papadimitriou


The debt crisis that enveloped Greece after 2009 – shaking the international financial markets and raising doubts about the viability of the ‘euro-zone’ – drew attention to how the Greek political system was governed and its capacity to deliver reform. In that sense, the crisis served the purpose of highlighting issues that had been long-ignored, to Greece’s detriment.

The genesis of this book predates the crisis and grew out of a recognition that Greek politics exhibits a paradox: legal scholarship and much public debate assumes that the Prime Minister exercises great authority, often unchecked by others; yet, the practical reality of the PM’s post – reflected in repeated ‘under-performance’ in delivering promised reforms – is of operational weakness, sustaining a lack of control and coordination across the government machine. We had previously examined the problems of Greece’s limited ‘reform capacity’ in a study of structural economic reforms (Featherstone and Papadimitriou, 2008). Now, we sought to explore the problem on the ‘inside’ and starting at the ‘top’ seemed sensible.

We soon recognised that the ‘paradox’ transcended the alternation of personalities and parties in power; indeed, also distinct policy programmes. Of course, each offered its variation, but a long-term institutional weakness of government from its apex has been evident over the long-term: indeed, since at least the restoration of democracy in 1974. This book, therefore, explores how a succession of prime ministers – together dominating Greece prior to the crisis – have sought to lead and manage their governments and the record of their attempts to do so. By focussing on the individual premiers, we are able to contrast the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ and to examine operational realities. Necessarily, we delve into individual premierships, but also their contexts.

The book argues, therefore, that the dysfunctionalities of the Greek government machine pre-date the debt crisis; indeed, the diversity of government ‘reform capacities’ across Europe, more generally, ought to have been readily acknowledged in the rules and operation of the euro-zone. The set of conditions that underlie the ‘paradox’ noted above have now been confronted by the interventions of outside bodies: the ‘Troika’ (IMF/ECB/European Commission) overseeing the conditionalities attached to Greece’s bail-out loans; the European Union’s Taskforce for Greece; and a number of bilateral technical support programmes. The paradox we identify proved to be robust over so many years – the operational weakness at the centre of Greek government survived many attempted changes – and time will tell whether the external interventions and domestic efforts emanating from the debt crisis can significantly alter the situation.

This book is neither confined to the ‘cognoscenti’ of Greek politics and history, nor does it frame Greece in isolation. It assumes no prior knowledge of the intricacies of Greek politics. It analyses the Greek case through the lens of a set of comparative and conceptual literatures in order to identify key issues and conditions. Throughout, we seek to maintain a clear and accessible narrative for both the foreign and the domestic reader.

This is a study, therefore, of a large question – how and why the operational weakness of government at the centre has been sustained – in a small case, Greece; though it is one with much international significance today. The internal functioning of government in Greece has often been neglected in the international literature and studies of prime ministers have been dominated by those of the Anglo-Saxon systems. Here, we endeavour to distinguish the Greek case and to relate it to established literatures on leadership; structure and agency within the institutional setting; administrative cultures; and, the socio-cultural conditions that underpin political strategies and behaviour. The analysis shifts between the micro- and the macro-levels of politics in order to assess will and capacity, choice and constraint. With such frames, we seek to properly identify the Greek conditions and offer connections to wider cases.

This is the first in-depth study of prime ministers and their governments in Greece over the period since 1974. To inform our study we have searched various archives; examined a large number of legal documents; and undertaken an extensive set of personal interviews. Each of these sources is acknowledged in the book, but we would like to record our gratitude to those who granted us (sometimes, multiple) interviews. We were fortunate in being able to interview each of the surviving prime ministers of the period, many senior and junior ministers, officials and personal advisers, journalists and academics. We are enormously indebted to them for their time and their knowledge. We have respected the confidentiality we promised to them.

In the preparation of this book, we have presented early drafts or parts of our research at lectures and seminars held in Athens and at King’s College London, LSE, Harvard, and Yale. We are very grateful for the feedback we obtained. We have also benefitted from periods of leave at other universities. Kevin Featherstone was Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard, in 2012 and Dimitris Papadimitriou was Visiting Fellow at Yale and the LSE in 2010. The project has also been supported at various stages by the LSE’s Hellenic Observatory.


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