The premier, the elections and the succession

Some time ago, when former Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos stated that Prime Minister Costas Simitis was displeased whenever the issues of entangled interests and corruption were raised at official party meetings, many PASOK cadres smiled knowingly. Simitis’s almost allergic reaction to such debates is an open secret. His comment, «Let whoever has evidence take it to the public prosecutor,» was a way of putting a stop to them. This is why this major problem has in effect been dropped from any internal government or party discussion. And it hardly needs pointing out that his statement represents an evasion. It turns the forest into a collection of trees, thereby hindering the introduction of institutional safeguards for public life against such harmful phenomena. By persisting in his negative stance, the premier has managed for years to exclude the subject not only from any government or party meetings, but also from public political discourse. But, as a senior PASOK official told Kathimerini: «When you cover up such problems for a long time, they become time bombs that can blow up in your hands at any moment. Unfortunately, Simitis doesn’t want to acknowledge that entanglement and corruption are the government’s weakest points.» Before the premier had the time to enjoy his European laurels, a storm involving big names boiled up in the government camp. Articles published in Avriani newspaper did not reveal anything dramatic, or of real substance, but they acted as a catalyst in bringing to the surface the accumulated displeasure of the public, who are convinced that politicians exploit their power in order to gain wealth by illicit means. Though unjust to quite a few, this view is is also closer to the truth than the idyllic picture the prime minister paints of his government. Even those who vote for PASOK know that the party has become cut off to a large extent from the social forces that brought it to power and supported it at elections, and has become a party of officials, many of who have sunk to involvement in vested interests and corruption. In this climate, Avriani has emerged as a wild card in the political system. Its accusations have had a snowball effect. Rumors that people in the know have been discussing for some time are becoming front-page news – often in exaggerated form – and they acquire a political dynamic. The field was already dry, in other words, and it only needed a spark to start the fire. That is why, regardless of any dubious motives of Avriani publisher Giorgos Kouris, the ethical and political issue which has arisen cannot be dealt with by evasion. The tactic Simitis’s colleagues reiterate, with a measure of pride, that he detests acting on the spur of the moment and under pressure. It is true that so far this tactic of his has helped him in his political life, but in this case inertia harms him. The obligations of the European Union presidency were a genuine excuse, but that will not help him much. Nor do his maneuvers appear to have paid off to date. He attempted to defuse the tension and gain control of the situation by making statements and shuffling off the matter onto the courts. Events have not met his expectations. The political agenda is no longer being set by the government, but largely by Avriani. Giorgos Kyrtsos’s book, which alleged improper relations between the opposition New Democracy party and big business was a brief interlude. It caused some embarrassment and political damage at ND headquarters on Rigillis but was not enough to reverse the climate. When Avriani started publishing its accusatory articles, the crucial question was whether its attacks would be confined to officials who had personal relations with entrepreneur Athanassios Athanassoulis. Now it is clear that Kouris will go all the way. His attack on the government and on the premier’s entourage in particular will be fought out to the bitter end. With matters having reached this stage, Kouris’s only hope of surviving in publishing and business is if New Democracy wins the next elections. Government sources say that Rigillis has given him some indirect reassurance. Public opinion is very unfavorable toward the government and this is reflected within the party. There is widespread concern among officials that the party is not only heading rapidly for defeat at the ballot box but also is in danger of losing its moral standing and suffering a political and electoral disaster, with all the consequences. So it is not strange that after a long period of political silence, internal party dissent has been rekindled. Cabinet Secretary Socrates Kosmidis’s significant proposals for political reform brought underlying party procedures to the surface. Sources confirm what was apparent from the outset, that the prime minister was informed from the start and gave the go-ahead to the cabinet secretary to outline his proposals at an OPEK think-tank event. The same sources add that he had not expected the speech to provoke such a response. More cynical political observers believe that publicizing Kosmidis’s proposal was mere pyrotechnics, intended to distract the public’s attention from Avriani’s allegations and to shift the focus of the news to subjects less painful to the government. As soon as it became evident that opposition from deputies and ministers was growing, the premier, through his spokesman, hastened to distance himself from those interesting proposals. Simitis no longer has the political stamina to proceed with such changes. He has limited room for maneuver, and equally few opportunities of promoting and managing such extensive changes from an advantageous position. If leading government officials are to be believed, the important thing is that he has no such intention. Despite all his assurances that he will lead PASOK at the next elections, his personal strategy has yet to be finalized. The unacknowledged but vital factor is whether he will be elected to a leading European Union post – he may try for the presidency of the Commission. But matters will have been arranged by the fall. If he wins the leadership, he will organize his succession. If he doesn’t, he will make his decision, largely on the basis of public opinion polls. If New Democracy has drawn ahead considerably, he may even retire in order to avoid a certain electoral defeat. Due to the unfavorable climate for the government, the prime minister’s inaction is being attributed to «weakened political reflexes.» But the premier’s plans for July, when Greece relinquishes the European presidency, seem like spasmodic moves. It is not by coincidence that an increasing number of voices within PASOK are demanding that something be done to raise the issue of succession. In other words, instead of defusing tension, Simitis’s waiting game is making him a hostage. It has had a boomerang effect, consolidating the widespread impression that the government is refusing to deal with the issue because it is deeply entangled itself. Furthermore, its blatant tolerance of entangled interests and corruption has brought it up against public opinion, which entails a political cost. Trends Opinion polls held some months ago confirmed the trend: New Democracy is gradually increasing its lead. The charged atmosphere is probably enhancing that lead, even though the public has few expectations that matters will improve with a change of government. In any case, it obviates the few chances PASOK has of mounting a counterattack and closing the gap. Perhaps its greatest opponent is the weariness and disillusionment of groups in society that once supported it. If the outcome is unfavorable, the party’s survival instinct will inevitably kick in more strongly. Not surprisingly, many senior party officials are distancing themselves from this issue. As they remark in private, it cannot be considered a party duty to offer political backing to ethically unacceptable behavior. Many of them predict a negative result from the procedures of the Central Committee, which is meeting for the first time after a long break on May 27. It seems that certain PASOK officials are not mistaken in saying that the way things are, the Greek prime minister’s move to the presidency of the EU is not simply an ambition. It would be his own political salvation.