George Papandreou: How Can You Restore Trust In Government? Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou says politicians like him have lost the trust of their citizens and it needs to be restored.

How Can You Restore Trust In Government?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Our show today is about trust, its invisible power and what happens when it's lost.

GEORGE PAPANDREOU: It was painful. And it still is very painful.

RAZ: This is George Papandreou. And back in 2011, he was ousted as prime minister of Greece. But less than two years before that, a completely different story.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's massive jubilation here in Athens. This really is a resounding victory for George Papandreou.

RAZ: It must've been amazing to feel as if your countrymen had placed their trust in you to, you know, steer the ship of state. And yet just a few short years later, that trust collapsed, right?

PAPANDREOU: That's right. And it's very easy - and this is part of representative democracy - to say, oh, you know, that politician is to blame or the other one is to blame, when we actually need to look deeper into how our institutions are working.

RAZ: So the story of Papandreou's political unraveling actually began almost immediately after his election as prime minister. It wouldn't just cost him his job, but the trust of the Greek people, who eventually came to distrust their entire democracy in the very country that invented it. And all goes back to a decision George Papandreou made at the height of Europe's economic crisis. It's a story he told on the TED stage.


PAPANDREOU: Sunday evening, Brussels, April 2010, I'm sitting with my counterparts in the European Union. I had just been elected prime minister, but I had the unhappy privilege of revealing a truth - that our deficit was not 6 percent as had been officially reported by the previous government, but actually 15.6 percent. The markets mistrusted us, our borrowing costs were skyrocketing and we were facing possible default. So I went to Brussels on a mission to make the case for a united European response. Picture yourselves around the table in Brussels. Negotiations are difficult, the tensions are high, progress is slow, and then 10 minutes to 2, a prime minister shouts out, we have to finish in 10 minutes because the markets are opening up in Japan and there will be havoc in the global economy. What followed were the most difficult decisions in my life - painful to me, painful to my countrymen, imposing cuts, austerity, often on those not to blame for the crisis. With these sacrifices, Greece did avoid bankruptcy and the eurozone avoided a collapse.

RAZ: But then in 2011, after months of negotiating the details of that deal with European leaders to avoid bankruptcy, George Papandreou made a surprising decision.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After a few days of relative calm, Europe has been plunged back into political and economic uncertainty.

RAZ: Papandreou called for a referendum on the deal, a vote in Greece for the people to decide whether they would accept the terms of the bailout.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A referendum that he could not only lose, but that could scuttle the deal and take the European currency and perhaps the world economy down with it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It seems he's prepared to take the massive political gamble of trusting his own people.

RAZ: Papandreou's opponents said calling for a referendum was political, an attempt to hold onto power. But he says he was trying to do something that had not been done up until that point in the crisis - to trust the public.


PAPANDREOU: In Brussels, when we tried desperately again and again to find common solutions, I realized that not one, not one of us had ever dealt with a similar crisis. But worse, instead of reaching out to the common or the collective wisdom in our societies to find more creative solutions, we reverted to political posturing. And then we were surprised when every ad hoc new measure didn't bring an end to the crisis. And of course that made it very easy to look for a whipping boy for our collective European failure. And of course that was Greece - those profligate, idle, Ouzo-swilling, Zorba-dancing Greeks, they are the problem. Punish them.

Well, a convenient but unfounded stereotype that sometimes hurt even more than austerity itself. That's why I called for a referendum, to have the Greek people own and decide on the terms of the rescue package. My European counterparts, some of them at least, said, you can't do this, there will be havoc in the markets. Again, I said, before we restore confidence in the markets, we need to restore confidence and trust amongst our people.

RAZ: But most of Papandreou's counterparts in Europe were too afraid to place that decision in the hands of the Greek public.

PAPANDREOU: Many of the leaders were, again, fearful that the markets would wreak havoc on the European Union and the euro. That undermined me in Greece. So I ended up forming a coalition to create a wider consensus, as wide as possible, with opposition parties. And at least then the program would've continued to go through.

RAZ: So under intense political pressure, Papandreou canceled that planned referendum. And after he built that political coalition to create a wider consensus, his opponents pushed him out.

PAPANDREOU: Even though these decisions were very painful and I wish I hadn't had to have taken them, I did so for the better, for the public good because the alternative would've been much worse.

RAZ: How do you think you could ever regain the trust of the people in Greece?

PAPANDREOU: Basically through the truth, simply telling what happened. But I would say also I still feel that because of this crisis, it's been very easy for people to either look toward saviors or blame some demons out somewhere out there. Both of those reactions are very passive. And what I would like to see - a much more participatory democracy where people take initiatives, are innovative. And Greece has great potential in that.


PAPANDREOU: The ancient Greeks, with all their shortcomings, believed in the wisdom of the crowd at their best moments. Democracy could not work without the citizens deliberating, debating, taking on public responsibilities for public affairs. And those who shunned politics - well, they were idiots. You see, in ancient Greece, in ancient Athens, that term comes from the root idio - ones's self, a person who is self-centered, secluded, excluded, someone who doesn't participate or even examine public affairs. The revival of democratic politics will come from you. And I mean all of you, everyone who stands up to the unchecked power. Whether it's authoritarian leaders, plutocrats hiding their assets in tax havens or powerful lobbies protecting the powerful few, it is in their interest that all of us are idiots. Let's not be. Thank you.


RAZ: If someone were to ask you, you know, why should I trust in democracy, like, you know, when democracy isn't giving me a voice or a place or an opportunity, what would you say?

PAPANDREOU: Well, the answer is a simple one - tell me what I should trust in if I don't trust in democracy. If we don't trust in our own capacity then who will we trust in? Will we trust the technocrats or will we trust the computers? Will we trust a dictator? Will we trust fundamentalist religion? Or will we in the end trust ourselves? It's the one thing that guarantees our own rights can be protected and we can work for a much better life.

RAZ: Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. He recently announced he was going to make a political comeback. By the way, since his resignation in 2011, there've been four Greek prime ministers and the country is still struggling to repay debts from the European bailout.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.