Behind the scenes of the succession struggle in the ruling PASOK party

The speech that Prime Minister Costas Simitis made just before midnight last Monday in Parliament may not have said a great deal, but in the current feverish atmosphere, it was taken by almost everyone as an announcement of the succession to his leadership of PASOK. Among PASOK supporters, this rekindled hopes for the elections along with relief that disruption within the party could be avoided. For that the premier got some of the warmest applause during his time in office. But soon the landscape became less clear, when word got around that Simitis was to convene an extraordinary congress in late January solely to discuss the matter of electing a new party president and would, immediately after that, announce early elections, remaining in office while they were held. Simitis himself has not announced his intentions, but leaks from his circle support the assumption that this is what will happen, on the grounds that Simitis has «a popular mandate.» And this, in all probability, is without having reached an agreement with his most likely successor, Foreign Minister George Papandreou. Control of the game The general impression that Simitis is aiming at not only an honorable exit from the leadership but also at controlling the game, has provoked anxiety and questioning among Papandreou’s staff. The zeal with which Maximos Mansion has appointed deputies as candidates to fill in most places on the ballot has not gone unnoticed. As some say, a leader who has decided to resign so as to help his party does not behave like that. Given that there is no time pressure, he should let his successor have the first say in arranging and announcing combinations, so as to symbolize renewal at this level. Not only independent observers hold the view that Simitis is trying to trap Papandreou politically. Some of the latter’s colleagues are beginning to share it. As they say, the prime minister’s prestige must be safeguarded, but it would cause great damage if «the new is trapped in the old» and voters are sent «a confused message.» Reputation One government source said that «Simitis is very concerned about his reputation. He fears that Costakis [New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis] will defame him. He wants to stay on as prime minister, not because he needs another month in power, but because he wants to bind George to strenuously defending the work of his eight years in office. With Simitis in Maximos Mansion, George will have no option [but to defend it] when he comes under attack from ND. If he does so before the elections, he will also be forced to after them. So he won’t be able to get out of Simitis’s shadow even if he wants to.» Papandreou’s statement to the Ta Nea newspaper («Everyone in PASOK is going for a triumphant victory in 2004 with Costas Simitis in the lead») stirred up public confusion and opposition within his own circle. Above all, it is an indication that he doesn’t have a clear strategy. As a former minister who supports him told Kathimerini: «At such vital moments you don’t make statements without thinking. Every comment that comes out of George’s mouth must be carefully thought through so as to achieve the required political result. It is superficial to give in to the occasional pressure of journalists.» One sign of the present climate is that some circles have recommended that the FM himself ask Simitis to stay on as premier until after the elections. Their argument is that this will maximize PASOK’s electoral chances and, if it fails, share out the blame. But the reality is somewhat different. The election tactics of both cadres (Papandreou and Simitis) are catastrophic. As party leader, Papandreou could rejuvenate the party and boost its electoral support. That alone would lessen ND’s advantage, but it is not enough to turn the elections into a neck-and-neck race. In order to have any real hope of winning, the new leader must win back traditional and other PASOK supporters who abandoned the party because they were dissatisfied or angry with the policies of Simitis’s government. These are mainly working-class urban and rural voters. If he is to have a chance of getting these voters back, Papandreou must convince them that PASOK has radically changed its policies and people; that it will turn over a new leaf. Only in this way can the rejuvenated party, with a new public image and high morale, make a strong bid in the electoral game. Informed sources say that only in this case would Papandreou, and probably Costas Laliotis, review their decisions not to stand. In other words, the elections will be decided, to a large extent, by the size and strength of the political dynamics set in motion by the election of Papandreou. And this in turn will decide whether the new leader convinces people that his election is a break with the Simitis era and not its continuation. The tactic of both cadres is a way of signaling a continuation and not a break, so as to bequeath the new leader the political attrition of the former and his government. To the public, last-minute renewal will look like a cheap electoral trick that negates the advantage of expectation. Besides, the foreign minister is not a complementary political figure to the prime minister. In terms of acceptance, he overlaps him. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Simitis’s supporters accept Papandreou and will vote for him. By contrast, Simitis’s remaining as prime minister is an obstacle to bringing home to PASOK the votes of a whole category of its traditional supporters who have forsaken it. Confirmed sources among Papandreou’s circle say that he prefers a clear solution, for Simitis to convene an extraordinary congress on the election of a new president and immediately afterward resign from the prime ministership. As the new PASOK leader, Papandreou would receive a mandate to form a government which would, as far as possible, express his intentions to bring about renewal. His policies announced in Parliament would be the declaration of a new era and become the platform on which he would seek electoral victory. As soon as he wins the vote of confidence, he will announce elections. The problem with this scenario is that it leaves the initiative to the premier, who sources say wants to decide on the framework for any developments. Need for agreement Some of the foreign minister’s colleagues believe that he should act first. In the initial stage, he should try – through third parties – to persuade Simitis of the need for agreement. «They have only exchanged general conversation about the succession. We don’t know of any agreement,» added the colleagues. When asked what will happen if the prime minister does not respond, they said that in that case Papandreou should make it known as soon as possible what procedure he believes to be legitimate. The same sources underline that he is aware of the tremendous strength his candidacy has in the party and society, but that he has never questioned Simitis’s right to lead PASOK to the elections. But now that the premier himself has indirectly but clearly raised the issue of the succession, it must be complete and not equivocal; it must also refer to the leadership of the government. More than two people are involved in this tug of war. Other senior officials are highly concerned about their futures, since Papandreou has diligently avoided making any agreements with them, much less making them any promises about their future roles. They favor the tactics of the two cadres and aim by every means to secure the active participation of Simitis, believing this is justified in order to balance the strength of the unbeatable successor, while at the same time boosting their own negotiating position in view of new balances emerging in the upper echelons of PASOK.