New PASOK leader likely by next month

Dramatic developments are expected in the early days of the new year within the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) as Prime Minister Costas Simitis prepares to hand over the party leadership to Foreign Minister George Papandreou. According to information obtained by Kathimerini, Simitis will chair a joint session of the inner Cabinet and the party’s Executive Bureau on Wednesday, January 7, where he will announce his intention to resign as party leader. The Executive Bureau will then convene the Central Committee which, in turn, will call for an extraordinary party Congress, most likely for the end of January, with the election of a new party leader the only item on its agenda. The same sources place national elections – which must be held by early May, at the latest – on March 7 or 14, although March 28 has not been ruled out, either. There is a snag concerning the premier’s post. Sources close to Simitis say that he intends to stay on as prime minister until elections take place, with the understanding that, if PASOK emerges victorious, Papandreou will take over as premier. Those sources explained that the alternative would be an election of Papandreou by PASOK’s parliamentary group, which would be followed by a presidential mandate to form a government. Papandreou would then form a government, make a policy declaration before Parliament, get a confidence vote after five days of debate and, then, because of the election deadline, go straight to the President and ask for early elections. The sources said that such a solution would be «ridiculous and cartoonish.» It is not certain that this scenario of a «twin leadership» – Papandreou at the helm of the party and Simitis as prime minister – is espoused by Papandreou himself, however brief this period may end up being. The foreign minister, on family vacation in Paris, has avoided any comment on the issue. More PASOK leaders, including known aspirants to the leadership, have rallied to Papandreou’s candidacy, making his election as leader nearly inevitable. Yesterday, Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos, who challenged Simitis in 1996 as representative of the traditional wing of the party, said that Papandreou has «an advantage over the other candidates.» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, widely seen as the only possible challenger to Papandreou, and certainly known to have the ambition to lead PASOK, effectively pulled out of the race by declaring, in an interview to Eleftherotypia newspaper, that Papandreou’s leadership «has been imposed by events as the natural thing.»