Oracular Simitis fuels speculation

Greece’s political world was rife with speculation and expectations yesterday after Prime Minister Costas Simitis, in the budget debate late on Monday, made an ambiguous statement on rumors that he will hand over the leadership of his PASOK party before the elections. Opposition leaders had pressed Simitis to make clear his position, arguing that the rumors had paralyzed the government. Simitis spoke shortly before Parliament passed the 2004 state budget with PASOK’s 156 votes in favor, 143 against and one absentee. Instead of evading the question, or repeating the government spokesman’s earlier assertion that Simitis would lead PASOK in the coming elections, the prime minister made a statement that led members of his own party and other observers to the certainty that he was thinking of handing over power. «It is my duty to shape developments so that we can respond to what society is looking for: A Greece that is changing, a Greece that is creative,» Simitis said. «I will shape – and we will shape – developments when we must, and in a way that is in keeping with our target, that PASOK always stays ahead. No one else will point out what we should do,» he said. «PASOK… will be in charge of the country again for the next four years. Victory is ours.» This gave rise to four possible scenarios, all of which have in common the belief that Simitis does not have much time in which to act and must make clear his intentions in January. Aides of Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who is the favorite to succeed Simitis, agree with this time frame. The first scenario posits that Simitis will call an extraordinary PASOK congress for the election of a new party leader while he stays on as prime minister for the elections. The advantage of this is that the new party leader will not have to reshuffle the Cabinet, which would run the risk of upsetting delicate balances in the party, though if he did not change ministers, he would inherit the voters’ fatigue with the government. But Simitis is not expected to opt for the dual leadership that he has spoken against in the past. The second scenario envisages the kind of «clear solutions» that Simitis has always pursued: He could resign from the post of prime minister and PASOK chairman but still play a leading role in the party’s pre-election campaign. The other two scenarios envision that Simitis might be chosen to to succeed Romano Prodi as chairman of the European Commission (although Simitis has said that he does not want the job) or that he would try to negotiate a breakthrough in the European Constitution. Senior ministers, however, say that this is highly unlikely and certainly not something that can be decided now. Simitis’s apparent decision to open the way for the succession of the party that he has led for almost eight years and through two victorious elections caught even his closest aides by surprise. But some of those close to him say that the turning point was in early November, when he appears to have realized that a series of initiatives – such as a social benefits package and the Convergence Charter – had not changed the political climate in PASOK’s favor. New Democracy party officials yesterday projected an image of confidence that the conservatives will win the elections irrespective of who is at PASOK’s helm. «The Greek people today know who is in opposition and who will govern tomorrow. What they don’t know is who is governing today and who will be in opposition tomorrow,» said Dimitris Sioufas, ND’s parliamentary spokesman.