NEWS

Not seen at the PASOK Congress: Passion

The year 2001 is not 1996. The passion is gone. Costas Simitis has been the leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement for five years now, and his hardline Socialist opponents still cannot stomach it. However, the exercise of power helps. Back at the 1996 party congress, the party’s fourth, remaining in power was not a given. Then, the question was who would succeed the late party founder, Andreas Papandreou. To most of the old party faithful, it was inconceivable that someone like Simitis could. Of course, Simitis had already been prime minister for five months when the Fourth Congress convened, on June 27, 1996. But many expected him to be a transitional figure. He had narrowly carried the parliamentary caucus but was not a legitimate leader, yet; not while the gravely ill Papandreou was still breathing. With the exception of two people, the party’s Executive Bureau was hostile. With each crisis Simitis faced as prime minister – and he faced some grave ones, nearly going to war with Turkey during the first days of his government – the party hacks at the Executive Bureau would summon him to explain himself, and afterward they pontificated before the cameras, as if they had rapped the bad boy hard across the knuckles and given him a last chance to remedy himself. Five years later, PASOK remains in power, in part thanks to Simitis’s policies that helped Greece enter the eurozone, and partly because of the low caliber and ineptitude of his rivals. The 1996 congress was a struggle for the party’s soul. One could hear really passionate debates among the delegates, outside the main hall where formal debates took place. Inside, the tension got to some. Apostolos Kaklamanis, then and now the Parliament’s speaker, had fainted after an emotional speech in which he had beseeched the delegates not to hand victory to Simitis. There was a palpable difference among delegates back then, even in their manner of dressing and speaking. The modernizers who supported Simitis were better dressed and better spoken than their old-school Socialist opponents. I remember one exception, a fiery Cretan giant wearing a traditional headband and who threatened an ashen-faced Evangelos Venizelos, the government spokesman, I’ll butcher you like a lamb. The delegate had suspected foul play on the part of the party hacks, who kept postponing the start of the vote so that some delegates from places such as Crete, who were heavily leaning to Simitis, would miss the vote in order to catch their booked flights, or sailings. In 2001, debate is no longer as passionate. There is little to tell the delegates apart, except perhaps from the company they keep. Cynics might say that the exercise of power has made them better dressed, better fed and better behaved. Those who did not follow the speeches inside were pretty listless, either sipping coffee at the bar or eating the (nearly inedible) food. There are no fiery debates among delegates anymore. Not that mutual hostility has faded altogether. Mutual suspicion, even hatred, lingers, but people from each side simply prefer to congregate together to talk. It’s more comforting this way. If, by chance, they meet someone they know belongs to the others they either avoid contact or, at best, exchange a few pleasantries before moving on. Among the top party officials there is an uneasy truce, some accommodation even. These are the advantages of power. Venizelos, now on the Executive Bureau, is on Simitis’s side and threatened by no one. Kaklamanis, in his usual long-winded way, lauded Simitis as a man who achieved so much and whose rectitude I never doubted, preferring instead to castigate American policies and, on the side, terrorist attacks. The voting was proceeding smoothly as of yesterday afternoon, with no signs of tension. The stakes now involve mainly how high a certain party baron will place in the vote for the Central Committee. Many of the delegates were especially anointed by local party leaders because they were known to be supporters of the one or the other party bigwig. And, in this case, it is easier to elect a whole family – the couple and one of their children sometimes. Back in 1996, there were two main camps who occupied two different sets of offices. The Simitis supporters were ensconced in the offices of the Olympic Stadium administration, while the Tsochadzopoulos supporters occupied a more modest suite of rooms, one floor below. Now, each party baron has installed his or her own offices in separate rooms: Here is the Vasso Papandreou crowd, next door is Miltiadis Papaioannou, while further down the corridor is George Papandreou’s office. These offices are always abuzz with supporters, usually from the bigwig’s electoral region, and supposed ones, those that walk the corridors and grab each bigwig in turn, trying to settle their own private affairs and, of course, promising their vote for the Central Committee. No wonder the corridor leading from the press office through the bars to those offices has been dubbed Avenue of the Lies. Some are disheartened by this state of affairs. This is a bazaar, not a party congress, Paraskevas Avgerinos, a veteran member of the Central Committee, exclaimed on Friday, proposing to stunned delegates that their size be cut in the future to European levels. In Europe, party congresses have from 300 to 900 delegates, at most, he said. His proposal, however, fell upon deaf ears. Despite the boredom, no one is willing to relinquish the title of delegate, now or in the future. Where else can one find so many ministers who not only are not distant and busy but eager to shake your hand and clap you on the shoulder, speaking to you in the intimate singular and calling you comrade? What better setting to do some business on the side? Perhaps if the party finally rejoins the opposition, people would be less willing to waste their time and finally turn over the congress grounds to the ideological bores who thrive on adversity.