The leadership election in Nea Demokratia following their defeat in the September 2015 elections has got everyone talking once again about οικογενειοκρατία (ikogeniokratía – with such a tongue-twister it is not surprising that the latin-derived “nepotism” prevailed in English to describe favouritism granted to family members). Having been consigned to the opposition by a (relatively new) party led by a young leader who placed great emphasis on ousting the “old” political establishment, the question for many is, will ND be able to field a candidate to whom the charge of the “old” won’t stick? The first candidate to throw his hat in the ring is Kyriakos Mitsotakis, son of honorary party leader and former Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, who publicly backed his candidacy. Which makes for tricky family politics, because Kyriakos’s big sister, Dora Bakoyanni, has long led a faction within the party, and her son, Kostas Bakoyannis, has also been mooted as a leadership candidate. It has the makings of a primetime soap opera, if not a Greek tragedy. Meanwhile, another wing of the party are jostling to kiss the ring of Kostas Karamanlis, former Prime Minister and nephew of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the party founder.
If you have just joined us, I know how you feel: I once tried to speed-read One Hundred Years of Solitude in two days. The point is, Kyriakos (as he prefers to be called, unsurprisingly) is already finding it hard to escape his family name, despite having shown signs of being a progressive and intelligent politician. Poor Kyriakos may be a decent and capable chap with the country’s best interests at heart but he is in a catch-22 situation: his surname is a selling point within the party, but electoral poison for the new voters that they need so badly to attract.
Nea Demokratia are not the only ones with a problem. The last power struggle in PASOK, once the other pillar in Greece’s pre-crisis two-party system, was between factions headed by the man who many saw as the rightful heir to the founder’s dynasty (George Papandreou, son of PASOK founder Andreas and grandson of Georgios Papandreou the Elder who also led his own party and served as Prime Minister) and the daughter of the man who was once his father’s heir apparent (Fofi Gennimata, daughter of Georgios Gennimatas). In the event, having left PASOK to form his own party, Papandreou was unable to run in the last elections due to lack of funds, making this the first election without a candidate from the Papandreou family in almost a century.
The prevalence of political dynasties is a fact of life in Greece that was thrown into sharp relief by the crisis, as it became yet another Greek peculiarity on which to pin the country’s decline. A widely quoted article in Der Spiegel blamed three political families for “ruining the country” through their nepotistic practices, and there are several lists and accounts one can turn to for more detailed and nuanced background. The leading families are often referred to as τζάκια (tzákia, literally fireplaces or family hearths) or σόγια (sóya, a Turkish word meaning clans, singular σóι – sói). The truth is that the phenomenon is more pervasive than the top three or five families, and extends across the political spectrum. In 2007 it was estimated that one in five parliamentary candidates came from a political dynasty (in Eleftherotypia newspaper, article no longer available online). Newer political constellations are not immune to it, as the meteoric rise of former Speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou (daughter of Nikos Konstantopoulos, leader of the new-defunct Synaspismos party that was absorbed into Syriza) demonstrates.
Professional politics is not the only arena in Greece where family ties prevail. Traditionally, voting preference has flowed along family lines. But then so has career and business, from the family-owned SMEs (shops and small manufacturing businesses) and professional service businesses (law firms, construction firms and private medical practices) that dominate Greece’s economy, to the family-owned conglomerates in the larger industrial sectors. Many areas of life are effectively a “closed shop”. It is hard to get a job in Greece, especially a first job, without a connection that often comes from family ties. How often have you heard of a talented, well-qualified person who applies for a job or bids for a contract only to find out that it has been awarded to someone’s (often totally unqualified) cousin? Even in the go-go days of the 1990s and 2000s when my age group entered the job market, most of my peer group had to persist for up to a decade before finding a job that matched their qualifications. Even as the economy superficially boomed, lack of opportunities for the young (the “€700 generation” as they were dubbed then after the typical entry-level monthly income) was blamed for recurring riots in the city centres and around the universities. It is no wonder that since the bubble burst, the young have found themselves at the sharp end; youth unemployment hovers in the mid-50%, and €700 now looks like a sweet deal if you can get it. And of course this exacerbates big future issues like the pensions time-bomb which politicians are only now reluctantly starting to wrestle with.
It is in these conditions that you can also see the flip side of family ties, and possibly start to understand how they come to undermine “the greater good”. The family is the most resilient institution in Greece. In a country that is marked by weakness in its political and civil institutions, the family offers the most reliable refuge and inter-generational safety net. We all like to joke about the Greek boys who can’t leave their mothers; over half of Greek adults of both sexes up to the age of 34 live with their parents compared to around 14% in the US and the UK and single digits in the Nordic countries. Moving in with the parents as a result of unemployment (for those who had moved out) was less of a culture shock and less stigmatising for Greeks than it was for the Americans and the Brits who had to return to the nest in the aftermath of 2008. Family networks extend back to the ancestral villages that Greeks left in droves in the post-war era, and they have also provided support ranging from olive oil to childcare to a newly rediscovered rural life for families finding themselves without income and roots in the big city. It has long been the norm in Greece for retired parents and grandparents to care and be cared for by the extended family, and only enter retirement homes in extremis. Now it is not uncommon for them to share their pensions with their unemployed children and their young families – indeed, the Greek social security system seems to be designed around the assumption that pensions will “trickle down” to support the unemployed and the needy in later generations.
You may think that I have strayed too far from the subject of nepotism into “motherhood and apple pie” territory, but my point is, it is all connected. When the crisis hit, many of us were optimistic that it would act as a catalyst to weaken some of the old structures and create new opportunities where they had previously been stifled. Now that seems less likely. Times of crisis strengthen family ties rather than pulling them apart, and if it is so at the bottom why imagine that it’s any different at the top? We like to think that politicians are a different species, especially when it comes to apportioning blame, but really they are flesh from our flesh. As the Greek lawyer or doctor might encourage their son or daughter to follow them in the profession and inherit not just the office space and the brass plaque but also the clientele, so the politician.
The biggest concern with nepotism in political life is not so much the lack of meritocracy (the quality of our elected representatives is an issue more broadly speaking) but the perpetuation of the inherited patronage system by the “politico-familial” complex. It is lazy thinking to believe that by diluting the gene pool in parliament the problem of political patronage will instantly be solved. A much more effective remedy would be to strengthen the social and political institutions that can provide the checks and balances, and step in when family support bleeds into discrimination and clientelism. Principles such as transparency, competition, performance assessment, management of conflicts of interest, are resisted as alien to the “native” culture precisely because they challenge pervasive vested interests. Closed professions and unrepresentative unions react to them in much the same way, like a vampire to garlic, and that can only be a good sign.