Simitis era wraps up

Prime Minister Costas Simitis chaired his last Cabinet meeting yesterday, a day ahead of the extraordinary PASOK congress set to name Foreign Minister George Papandreou to succeed him as party leader. President Costis Stephanopoulos will be asked to dissolve Parliament on February 11, ahead of the March 7 elections, and the new one will convene March 18, the Cabinet decided. The Cyprus issue was the stated reason for polls two months before the government’s four-year mandate is up. Simitis summed up his eight years as prime minister by saying, «Society has realized that stability constitutes a precondition for development and progress, that planning and policies are necessary and that the Greeks today have acquired greater self-confidence.» He added: «Nothing was given to us as a present. Everything we achieved was due to our own ability to plan and carry out our plans, to negotiate persistently, and to the Greek people’s hard work and determination.» He listed as his government’s achievements Greece’s eurozone entry; Cyprus’s EU accession and Greece’s higher international standing; moves toward European living standards; increased social spending; new infrastructure projects; modernizing institutions; eliminating terrorism; introducing after-hours schooling; higher farmers’ incomes; and closing the issue of the former royal family’s property. At today’s congress at the new Olympic wrestling center at Nikaia, only Simitis, PASOK General Secretary Michalis Chrysochoidis and Papandreou are to speak, while the 4,500 delegates will approve by acclamation a change to the party charter allowing their new leader to be elected on Sunday by not only 140,000 party members but also undetermined «friends» of PASOK. Papandreou is the only candidate. However, sources said that the state privacy watchdog had ruled, by a majority vote, that Sunday’s procedure would violate the Constitution as the names of those voting would be stored on computers. It was not clear how PASOK would respond to this. Papandreou is expected to resign as foreign minister on February 11 to concentrate on fighting the election. He will be succeeded by Alternate Foreign Minister Tassos Yiannitsis. Caretaker ministers will replace the minsters of press and the interior next week. In his speech at the congress, Papandreou is expected to present his policies for governing the country if he is elected. In the latest opinion poll to be made public, New Democracy appears to be maintaining its lead over PASOK, by 39.2 percent versus 34.7 percent, while Papandreou is still preferred over ND leader Costas Karamanlis as the most suitable candidate for prime minister, with 38.3 percent versus 36.9 percent, respectively. The nationwide poll (with balloting), presented by Alpha television, was conducted by MRB Jan. 24 – Feb. 2 among 2,000 people. This was at the height of a government minister’s abortive bid to pass controversial legislation and before the uproar over ND’s alleged intention to introduce harsher conditions in the social security system.