NEWS

Behind the scenes before Laliotis’s exit

Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s relationship with the new PASOK party general secretary, Michalis Chrysochoidis goes back some way, but not that far. They first became associated in 1994 and 1995, when Simitis was industry minister and Chrysochoidis deputy trade minister. That period laid the foundations for their working relationship that were strengthened after 1996 when Simitis, by that time prime minister, entrusted Chrysochoidis, deputy development minister, with the political responsibility for controlling inflation and curbing prices, one of the main tools in achieving Greece’s nominal convergence and acceptance into the Economic and Monetary Union. Since then, their political contacts have been more systematic, and it could be said that Chrysochoidis has won the privilege of being one of the prime minister’s interlocutors, although without the familiarity others may have. There was always some distance maintained, similar to that of professor and student. Their links became stronger when, this time last summer, following the explosion of a bomb in the hands of Savvas Xeros in Piraeus, Chrysochoidis gave Simitis the November 17 terrorist group on a plate. That achievement broke the ice and opened the doors of the prime minister’s office to the public order minister, who since last summer has had repeated meetings with Simitis. Most probably, it was then that the seeds of this week’s decision were sown; Simitis, with his customary reserve, and the minister with the fire of the young and successful man who, after uncovering the terrorism network, saw that not only Greek doors were open to him, but others abroad as well. He began to express broader views more frequently, raised proposals on other issues, became more politically integrated, and assumed a more specific image, within the bounds of a modern and effective reformism in line with the Anglo-Saxon model, with clear influences from the «Third Way» of Tony Blair and his mentor Anthony Giddens. Chrysochoidis soon found himself in other spheres. He now had a golden passport and access to information and was well established on the main political stage. Two months ago We don’t know who made the first move. A lot of it had to do with circumstances. About two months ago, in the midst of Greece’s European Union presidency, when the government was having to confront a spate of scandals, the prime minister proposed Chrysochoidis for the post of party secretary, although the precise conditions that led to the decision are not known. Hesitant at first, Chrysochoidis was eventually persuaded when the idea was linked to that of the general renewal and reconstruction of both party and government. He realized that he was taking a great risk, but as he himself said, there is no point entering politics if you are not prepared to take risks and assume the consequences. It is no coincidence that at that time he was at the forefront of the effort to «defend the party» from an alleged «attack from organized business interests.» But from that point on, ever since he agreed to break with his predecessor, Costas Laliotis, he set the entire operation in motion. He had meetings, formed associations and began to prepare for the change within the party that would determine changes in the government. It was an ambitious undertaking and therefore had to be kept secret. About three weeks ago, the general outline of the plan reached the ears of Laliotis, who ensured it was made more widely known in an obvious attempt to forestall it. That was why he challenged (government spokesman Christos) Protopappas, and when the latter gave a nebulous reply, he obtained a categorial statement from Deputy Press Minister Telemachos Hytiris that the secretary would not be replaced. At that time the plans were frozen and believed by many of those in the know to have been abandoned. As of the Sunday before last, however, when Simitis returned from the US, they were once more activated. The majority of the Central Committee was won over relatively easily by those in on the plan, who displayed considerable organizational powers. Therefore, last Wednesday the prime minister moved ahead, certain of the outcome. He called for the resignations of the Executive Bureau, the general secretary included. The shock was considerable and the next day at the Central Committee meeting, Chrysochoidis was elected with 118 votes, far more than what he expected. So far, so good. But this is where the problems begin. First of all, the NET state television station’s decision to cut the broadcast of Laliotis’s speech made a very bad impression. Then the election of the Executive Bureau also sent out negative messages. The new party organ is poorly balanced politically; it does not portray an image of strength, and it is more reminiscent of a working group than the main representative organ of a major party. This is not to mention the anger of Apostolos Kaklamanis, the only original party cadre on the Bureau, who came second and now feels isolated in a barren political arena. Party change has also been undermined politically by Laliotis’s references and insinuations of interference by the US. Even if they are unconvincing, they have had a negative effect within PASOK’s ranks and created a climate of mistrust. Balancing act Even if we assume that these are just details that pall before the magnitude of the change, what came next was disheartening even for those who have assumed the responsibility of carrying out the task of reorganizing the new party. The lackluster and colorless reshuffle, designed to satisfy the desire of the prime minister’s office to achieve a balance, almost canceled out whatever political gains were achieved in the confrontation with Laliotis. Hopes were automatically dashed. As of last Friday afternoon, when Protopappas announced the new Cabinet, PASOK reverted to its former condition, disappointing even the Athens stock market, which had reacted positively to the changes of the previous day. Some even gleefully referred to the «new PASOK’s 10-hour life span.» Nevertheless, despite his disappointment at the reshuffle, Chrysochoidis believes that the change will be judged in practice and by the results it will have on the party and government. Although he himself recognizes that reorganizing the party has to start with communication at the base, he insists that «work will be the deciding factor.» The other day Foreign Minister George Papandreou encouraged him to make far-reaching, radical reforms within the party, and promised to support him. The new Executive Committee is to meet Wednesday, while the new general secretary will find much to occupy him with the political directorate, whose composition and functioning will be announced today by the prime minister at a Cabinet meeting. Within the week, the prime minister will also present his ideas for reforming the political system and electoral districts and monitoring politicians’ source-of-income statements. Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis is moving steadily and surely toward structural changes, insisting that the only tough moves in the economy and further growth are capable of bringing about results and improving the climate. Above all, however, Laliotis will have a crucial part to play from now on. He himself called Chrysochoidis to congratulate him and explained that he never regarded politics from the personal point of view; but he also let it be known that he will still make his voice heard. He will be seeking to represent, or rather express, PASOK’s conscience, with all that entails. After all, he firmly rejects the accusation that he represented the conservative trend and obstructed reforms. He even defends reform, saying that his work at the Environment and Public Works Ministry «is the only tangible reformist achievement» and in his view «will surely go down in history.» Although it is premature to attempt any absolute judgments about everything that has happened over the past week, the ruling party’s image has certainly suffered, unless everything suddenly moves ahead at a frenetic and efficient pace. Judging from the past, this is highly unlikely.