PASOK nominates Papandreou

The ruling PASOK party yesterday named George Papandreou as the sole candidate for the party leadership ahead of an unprecedented popular vote that will take place tomorrow. PASOK has called on not only party members but also unspecified «friends» to take part in the election of the single candidate, in a decision that was found to be unconstitutional by the country’s privacy watchdog because, it said, registering the names of those voting would violate the secrecy of their political beliefs. Some 4,500 party members attended the extraordinary party congress, which was held at the newly built Olympic weightlifting center in Nikaia in a festive atmosphere. Prime Minister Costas Simitis, Papandreou and party general secretary Michalis Chrysochoidis were the only speakers. The congress nominated Papandreou by acclamation to succeed Simitis, who stepped down as party leader but will remain as prime minister until the day after the March 7 elections. Papandreou is to resign the post of foreign minister next week. On the occasion of the extraordinary congress, PASOK unveiled its policy program for 2004-2008. This is based on the «Convergence Charter» which Simitis presented last September. The program avoids any dangerous, unpopular areas, presenting the thorny issue of social security as if it needs no reform. It included the gradual reduction of the highest tax rate, from 40 percent to 35 percent for individuals in 2008 and from 35 percent to 30 percent for businesses, with the possibility of this dropping to 25 percent if conditions permit, and, for single-owner businesses, to 20 percent. Furthermore, tax offices will be responsible for collecting social security payments. The program also touches on the possibility of greater flexibility in the labor market. It did not, however, include Papandreou’s proposal of a few weeks ago to allow young people to enter the job market without having to pay social security contributions for the first four years. Instead it stressed continuity with Simitis’s program. In his speech, Papandreou laid out the basic outlines of his pre-election campaigns, presenting his ideas for a «new era.» He made clear that he wants to renew PASOK. «New historical cycles do not begin with old party structures,» he said. He called for a broad «democratic camp» that would unite forces from the center left to the center right. But he sought to assure leading party members that he was not going to sideline them. «I have never had, I do not have and I will not have a clique, or courtiers. I see all of you near me,» he said. Regarding New Democracy, Papandreou made clear that he would not shy away from an open clash with the conservatives. «They say that whatever we do they will do better. We saw how well they did with their economic program, with regard to social insurance,» Papandreou gloated. PASOK gained points in recent days over union and media outrage at ND’s proposal to base social security reforms on laws it had passed as a government in 1990-93 and which were interpreted as implying a later retirement age for fewer benefits. Papandreou agreed with Simitis’s earlier comments, regarding the need «to maintain and broaden economic and fiscal stability.» But he also expressed the aim of widening the redistribution (of resources) in favor of the weaker members of society. He promised a small Cabinet with new institutions aimed at «confronting all kinds of interests.» In his last speech as party leader, ending an eight-year term as prime minister that made him the Greek leader to serve the longest contiguous term, Simitis said «a young man is taking over the helm.» He described the 51-year-old son of PASOK party founder Andreas Papandreou as «a leading cadre with great experience in government, with strong bonds with society, with a desire for radical change, with a good international reputation.»