Simitis keeps friends, rivals on the hook

The ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) is in a state of suspense, awaiting the decision of its leader, Prime Minister Costas Simitis, on whether he will fight the next election as the party leader or make way for Foreign Minister George Papandreou. Simitis, who returned from a short Christmas vacation yesterday, met with his closest collaborators and with PASOK General Secretary Michalis Chrysochoidis. However, the issue of succession was not discussed, according to participants. What was discussed was Simitis’s schedule until mid-January. After New Year’s Eve, Simitis will resume his holiday. On January 7 or 8, he will preside over a Cabinet committee and on Jan. 13, he will speak to PASOK’s candidates for the next election. He will then visit Iraklion, Crete, and on Jan. 18, he will go to his own Piraeus constituency to commemorate his eighth year in power, a first for a Greek prime minister. A PASOK conference is further scheduled for February 14. However, if Simitis does decide to step down ahead of the election, insiders reckon, he must make this known well in advance. Talk of replacing Simitis with Papandreou has been gaining traction over the last few months and further gained credence this month when Simitis, at least twice, deliberately chose to shroud his intentions in mystery. Polls, which put opposition New Democracy well ahead of PASOK, show, in answers to hypothetical questions, that the gap would be smaller if Papandreou were leading the party. But polls also show that Simitis still enjoys a comparative advantage over his rival, ND leader Costas Karamanlis. Since last Monday, when Simitis declared he alone will decide whether to stand again, PASOK officials have been enthusing that the party «has regained the initiative,» as Minister of the Aegean Nikos Sifounakis said yesterday. On the other hand, if Simitis were to hand over the reins, it might look as if the ruling party, seized by panic over the prospect of electoral defeat, were dumping its leader. ND leaders said yesterday that a change in PASOK’s leadership was immaterial and that they would attack Papandreou for having supported Simitis at every turn over the past eight years.