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Greek prime minister fights "credibility deficit"

George Papandreou has stuck by his pledge to increase transparency despite economic woes.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou attends an economic conference in Athens, Feb. 2, 2010. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — Government jobs in Greece have long been seen as the spoils of power, handed out by whatever party was in control to reward supporters. But when Greece’s new Socialist government won national elections last October, it did something unexpected: Instead of quietly appointing party faithful, it started posting top jobs on the internet and inviting applications.

The number of responses took the government by surprise. When jobs were posted for 79 general secretary positions — top officials responsible for running ministries — more than 23,000 people applied and many of those ultimately hired came from outside traditional party structures.

Greece’s new prime minister, George Papandreou, has put openness and transparency at the heart of his political agenda and says addressing Greece's current economic woes — which some fear are putting the stability of the eurozone at risk — requires addressing the country’s deep-seated culture of nepotism and corruption. His new open government initiative, Papandreou says, will harness the power of the internet to make public information available and promote dialogue between citizens and the state.

“It’s imperative that we break away from the past and old mentalities,” Papandreou told journalists at a three-hour-long national press conference last month, warning that the country’s economic crisis required radical action to address ingrained problems. Greece, he said, had a “credibility deficit.”

In addition to expanding the open application process to all government positions, Papandreou has promised to put every government document — including the national budget — online. Draft legislation has been posted online and public comment solicited.

In Greece, such moves constitute a minor revolution. But as Greece struggles to fend off a looming economic crisis, many at home and abroad wonder if the new prime minister has the courage and political capital to see his plans through.

“These efforts are all in the right direction and we applaud that,” said Constantinos Bacouris, chairman of the Greek chapter of Transparency International. “But we’re waiting to see if they follow through or whether the changes will simply be cosmetic.”

Corruption and nepotism are not new problems in Greece, but the global financial crisis has focused attention on the country’s governance problems. And Greece hasn’t fared well under the increased scrutiny.