An interview with Kevin Featherstone and Dimitris Papadimitriou, authors of Prime Ministers in Greece: the Paradox of Power

Many thanks to Kevin Featherstone and Dimitris Papadimitriou, authors of shortlisted book Prime Ministers in Greece: the Paradox of Power, who kindly agreed to this interview.

It was difficult not to get carried away with all the questions I wanted to ask them. In fact, some of my questions were impossible to answer in just one paragraph, and would have required… a whole book!

You were both involved in an ad hoc advisory committee to George Papandreou some years ago. Can you tell us more about it? What impact did the advisory committee have? Were any changes made as a result?

We interviewed George Papandreou, before he became PM, about his father, Andreas.  It was a good and wide-ranging discussion.  Kevin had written in ‘Kathimerini’ about the contrast between the formal powers of the Greek PM and the practical reality of a constrained and under-resourced position.  Later, after George’s election victory he invited Kevin to join an ad hoc advisory committee on how to ‘modernise’ the government structure and operation.  The Committee was to be composed of foreigners; Dimitris made his own bilateral input.  George announced in 2010 that he would be adopting the Committee’s Report and he started to implement some of its action-points.  But, of course, wider political events took over and George resigned as PM.  Yet, the impact continued: the governments that followed took action to reform the government at the centre and the Troika itself pressed this same agenda.  So, a focus had been defined and an agenda set.
Do you think Greeks are receptive to advice from outside consultants?

Well, there are distinctions to be made here!  Before the current crisis, successive Greek governments had appointed foreign experts and agencies to advise on specific policy problems.  This has been the case for most governments since 1974.  For better or for worse, experts from outside the system were seen as more likely to be listened to.  Of course, now the ‘Troika’ or the ‘institutions’ have played a very different, impositional role and this has inflamed sensitivities.  But even during the crisis, technical assistance has been welcomed.

Kevin, you sometimes write a column in Kathimerini. Do you get feedback from readers? Do they argue with your opinions or are they indifferent?

Yes, I get emails and facebook comments.  Most are positive.  When I was in the media for the ad hoc committee you mention above, I had Greeks writing asking me to intercede with the PM or his ministers.  Many assumed my access to Maximou was easy and frequent; it wasn’t.  I remember one asking me to have the PM ease his tax problem.

Are there historical factors that explain the ‘paradox of power’ in Greece, where the Prime Minister has extensive powers but the structures, processes and resources in place undermine his ability to manage the government? Why has the system developed in this way?

That required a book to answer!  There’s a cultural dimension here of the legal formalism of how the government machine operates; the lack of trust across government encouraging an insularity; the disruptive impact of patronage and clientelism undermining quality; and the emergence of separate ministerial ‘fiefdoms’ as counter-veiling power centres.  Under party pressure, PMs have appointed large numbers of staff who then go to work for the party, not the government.  And the fact that all senior positions are non-permanent creates a lack of continuity.  But also history and personality matters: Karamanlis after 1974 wanted a lean structure and some others have followed, despite this being largely out of synchronisation with modern needs.

What needs to change in Greece to achieve better governance? Are reforms underway, and are they on the right track? How likely are they to succeed?

It’s easy to be sceptical and say problems are too big or too deep-rooted.  There are practical steps to be taken – to improve the central direction and coordination of the government.  Various mechanisms can be created to strengthen intra-government collaboration.  Far too many posts are politically-appointed and this costs in terms of the lack of institutional memory. Governments also need to have wider and better quality advice and information, at a technical level.  There’s a common instinct that the job of government is to pass laws – rather than to assess impacts and better identify solutions.

What do you make of the rise and fall of Varoufakis? Was he naive about power structures, and was the political establishment simply unable to cope with a maverick, or was he incompetent as a Minister?

He played an extraordinary game of chicken.  This seems to have been based on a misunderstanding of how Europe works and of the interests of euro-zone members.  It also failed to give proper recognition to the institutional and market reforms Greece needs.  Added to this, his rather egotistical personality and iconoclastic style got in the way of sensible deal-making.  Apart from that, history will be kind to him.

What impact has the debt crisis had on governance in Greece?

Varoufakis is only one part of the story.  The strategy and agenda of the Troika has been crass and often self-defeating.  Europe didn’t know how to handle bailouts and the evaluations made by the European Parliament, the European Court of Auditors, and the IMF itself underscore the mistakes made.  Politically, the strategy de-legitimised reform in Greece and undermined the careers of the reformers.  The timelines were often impossible. The gains to governance tend to be rather isolated.

What is it about the Greek political system that favours political ‘dynasties’?

Politics in Greece, as in the US, has favoured personalities and has sought heroic leaders.  The image is bigger than parties and elicits support and loyalty.  Parties are not set up to be institutionally very strong, but rather as rallying forces.    Family provides a quick profile.
Can you tell us more about clientelism in Greece, which seems far more entrenched than in some other European countries? Is it on the wane, or as significant as ever? Where is the line between clientelism and corruption in Greece?

Clientelism is not unique to Greece and it occurs when populations feel socially or economically vulnerable.  In modern times, parties have been the agents of patronage.  In the Greek case, tribal conflicts also prompt ‘our people’ to be appointed to public posts for their loyalty.  ‘We are the Masters now’ still seems to be the motto.

How do you work together on a book? Do you bring different skills and areas of knowledge to the table? Do you work separately on different sections of the book, or do you work collaboratively on all the material (and argue over it!)?

We’ve collaborated for many years and remain firm friends.  Yes, we have different skills and knowledge so we tend to agree a division of labour for any particular project and then exchange drafts and material and hammer out our agreement.  From the beginning, though, the great thing is how close our instincts and thinking are.

Has your partnership changed since your last book?

No, but we’re taking a breather due to changing circumstances.

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