PM will lead polls fight, FM assures

Speculation over whether Prime Minister Costas Simitis will hand over the reins of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) to Foreign Minister George Papandreou in next year’s election continues unabated, despite a declaration by the latter that it will be Simitis who will lead the party at the election. «The leader in this battle, the one who will lead PASOK to yet another victory is Costas Simitis,» Papandreou told the daily Ta Nea in an interview published in its last issue, on Wednesday. An aide added that all of Papandreou’s campaigning appearances will be agreed upon in advance with Simitis. Just months ahead of the next national election – which must take place by early May, at the latest – PASOK consistently trails the conservative New Democracy party at the polls and rumors have been growing that Simitis, who has already won two national elections, in 1996 and 2000, will step down ahead of elections. Papandreou himself helped fuel the rumors earlier this month when he declared that he would be «ready to assume responsibility when the time comes.» Although there are several senior PASOK members willing to succeed Simitis, Papandreou, son of party founder Andreas Papandreou and grandson of another prime minister, George Papandreou, is the overwhelming favorite of party members. Simitis himself has muddied the waters about his intentions. Earlier this month, he told foreign correspondents that he would «participate» in the elections – without specifying in what capacity. Late last Monday in the closing debate on the 2004 budget, he said that he would «shape developments» when the time comes «in keeping with our target (a PASOK victory).» Proponents of the change in leadership say that Papandreou’s leadership would throw New Democracy off balance by providing a generational change in PASOK (Simitis is 67, Papandreou 51). They point to poll findings that indicate that should Papandreou become PASOK leader, New Democracy’s lead would significantly diminish. Skeptics within the party say that the benefits from such a change are not apparent and that the initial enthusiasm may not last. After all, Papandreou has subscribed to all of Simitis’s policies and, despite having being preoccupied with foreign policy issues since 1996, first as deputy and then as full minister, he will have to defend the present government’s record.