NEWS

Simitis to hand over PASOK reins

Costas Simitis, ending eight years as prime minister, announced yesterday that he will step down from the PASOK party leadership but will remain head of the government until the elections, which will be held on March 7, two months before the government’s four-year mandate expires. Simitis said he would resign to give his party a greater opportunity to continue with his reformist program. Although he did not name him yesterday, Simitis is expected to nominate Foreign Minister George Papandreou as his successor at a meeting of PASOK’s Central Committee today. The committee will decide on an extraordinary congress in order to change the charter so that the new leader can be elected by the largest possible number of party members in early February (instead of congressional delegates). Simitis did not say what he would do in the future, though he has often been touted as a possible candidate for high office in Europe. Simitis met with President Costis Stephanopoulos at 10 a.m. to brief him. «I consider it correct to clear the atmosphere so that everyone knows what to expect and the citizens can judge and make their decisions,» Simitis told the president before their closed-door meeting. Later he chaired a joint meeting of his Inner Cabinet and PASOK’s Executive Bureau before making his statement. Simitis, a 67-year-old professor of law and founding member of PASOK in 1974, was elected prime minister by the party’s parliamentary group on January 18, 1996. Six months later, he succeeded party founder Andreas Papandreou as chairman. Now Papandreou’s son is in line to become the party’s third leader and, if he becomes prime minister, will follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather George. In his address, Simitis spoke of his government’s achievements, admitted no mistakes and stressed that the decision to step down was part of his own plan for party and government renewal that began last summer. Regarding the past eight years, he said: «Greece has made a spectacular change for the better. It has been a creative period like no other in our country’s history.» He said he was trying to avert the risk of a slackening of his reforms – an indirect reference to the fear that PASOK, trailing New Democracy, might lose the elections. «I have an obligation to avert… the risk of the country’s progress being delayed or halted. For it was I that set out the plan, it was I who directed the effort… because our work must have continuity and I have a duty to ensure that continuity,» Simitis said. «Now, at the beginning of the new year, the time has come for me to take the next step toward renewal. A party and a government have to be renewed,» he said. «It has been my deepest belief, since the moment I took office, that as prime minister I had the duty not only to govern the country but to establish models for the country’s progress… The prevailing view in Greece, that unlimited tenure is the rule, is not compatible with the current reality of continuous social change. And Greece needs to change its leaders,» he said. «PASOK has leading cadres with knowledge, experience and ability… They have already handled difficult situations and have shown that they can do so very well, winning the recognition of our society as well as that of the international public,» Simitis said in a veiled reference to the 51-year-old Papandreou. «I am about to begin the necessary procedures to elect a new president of PASOK. I will remain as prime minister until the day after the elections. The new PASOK president will lead the next PASOK government right after the elections,» he said.