ATHENS (Reuters) - They have dominated Greek politics for decades, attending the same prestigious schools, sharing college dorms and mixing socially, but always fighting tooth and nail for political advantage.
Disillusioned by their leaders, many Greeks hope the debt crisis that has brought the country to its knees may finally break the stranglehold the ruling dynasts have on politics in the country.
But they could just be exchanging one set of elites for another, or the younger generation of the same.
Nepotism and patronage are so deeply rooted, and family and clan loyalties so strong, that change will not come quickly.
“Political culture doesn’t change overnight and Greek politics is in many ways personalistic and polarized, where the name of the family is far more important than any other credentials,” said Othon Anastasakis, director of Southeast European studies at Britain’s Oxford University.
“It works as a closed profession and it’s very difficult to accept new people, new blood with new ideas,” said Anastasakis, a former Greek Foreign Ministry adviser.
The Karamanlis, Papandreou and Mitsotakis families have taken turns at governing Greece for the greater part of half a century, most recently under Papandreou scion George. Their names have traditionally been enough to secure a seat in parliament, if not a ministry.
But opinion polls show support for the main parties - socialist PASOK, a Papandreou fiefdom, and conservative New Democracy, founded by a Karamanlis - has dropped to a record low during an austerity-driven recession.
“I don’t care who is in there as long as his name is not Papandreou, Karamanlis or Mitsotakis,” said Alexandros Karabelas, a 41-year-old engineer, as he gestured towards the parliament building in central Athens.
“I want someone who can contribute more than a name, who has had a real job outside politics, who has proven himself first.”
Papandreou, son and grandson of Greek premiers, was compelled to resign in disgrace in November over his handling of the debt crisis which is shaking faith in the euro itself.
A three-party coalition led by former central banker Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has taken over, charged with pushing through a bailout needed to avert bankruptcy.
However, although it is true the established players are expected to be absent when the country goes to elections penciled in for February 19, they will likely be replaced by individuals who are still very much part of the same crowd.
The new crowd is a mixture of members of other political families, younger generations of the existing ones and various members of the social elite.
It includes Antonis Samaras, current New Democracy leader and part of the same social set as Papandreou.
His great-grandfather founded Athens College, a prestigious private school Samaras and many other politicians attended. A fiery orator known for his refusal to budge on major issues, Samaras was a college roommate of George Papandreou in Boston.
Papandreou’s predecessor as prime minister, fellow dynast Costas Karamanlis, lost the 2009 election amid corruption scandals and has kept a low profile since, appearing only during parliamentary votes. But his political career is not over and some analysts say he is deliberately staying on the sidelines until the right time comes to step in.
Also waiting in the wings are Dora Bakoyannis and her brother Kyriakos Mitsotakis, both children of Constantine Mitsotakis who served as prime minister in 1990-93.
Bakoyannis, a former Athens mayor and the country’s first female foreign minister, broke ranks with New Democracy after losing a leadership battle to Samaras, an old rival of her father’s. Her brother stayed in New Democracy.
Bakoyannis has her own centre-right party, Democratic Alliance, but polls show it is unlikely to win enough votes to enter parliament in the next election.
Neither PASOK nor New Democracy is expected to win an outright majority in the elections, analysts said, raising the prospect of further multi-party - and possibly short-lived - coalitions.
“One-party rule is near-impossible and all options are open,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters, who like many analysts believes the time seems ripe for new parties.
The system works against new entrants, however.
Existing parties receive substantial financing from the state and from banks - on average, annual state funding worked out to 10 euros per vote in the last election. New parties receive nothing and depend on raising money from donors but this is often complicated and not widespread.
The European Union, which Greece joined in 1981, has inadvertently encouraged patronage and cronyism with generous development funds that the powerful political families have used to bolster their support, analysts said.
Private sector workers have long complained that public offices are filled with idle civil servants put there in return for votes and protected by the constitution from sacking.
The Greeks call it “rousfeti” and it is generally used to refer to the handing out of political favors.
“This unity government is a test for parties to cooperate under extreme circumstances but I wouldn’t be optimistic about a change in culture,” Oxford University’s Anastasakis said.
“What we are seeing is democratic politics in Greece being dictated by the international markets, by external pressure, and change is happening primarily because of that. There is a life or death situation in a way.”
The dynastic system inhibits progress, politicians said.
“I felt blocked most of the time when attempting to introduce changes that would affect the system,” former finance minister Stefanos Manos told Reuters, citing opposition to his proposal to introduced fixed terms for party leaders as an example.
“The end of the dynasties remains to be proven. We just went through an unfortunate period during which bearers of the dynastic names turned out to be less than competent leaders,” he said. “But there will be more coming.”
For the first time in almost 40 years, both parties are likely to be led by newcomers by the time of the election and surveys show PASOK voters prefer Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos to take the helm from George Papandreou.
But for the time being, the loyalty George’s father Andreas continues to inspire some 15 years after his death is so strong that the PASOK party faithful are reluctant to oust the son.
“He is part of the Holy Trinity,” said Yianis Varoufakis, an economics professor at Athens University who worked as George Papandreou’s speech writer on economic policy before he took office in 2009.
“To this day, even those who agree this is an extremely critical time for the party, when it comes to the crunch, they say ‘How can we do this to Andreas’s son?’”
That is precisely the problem for many Greeks.
“Dynastic politics made people feel democracy is a game reserved for members of such families,” Varoufakis said. “It was always part of a political cancer growth on Greece and the sooner they leave us the better.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall