Papandreou takes over

Completing the PASOK leadership change, Prime Minister Costas Simitis formally handed over the ruling party’s reins to Foreign Minister George Papandreou in a brief ceremony at the party headquarters yesterday. A day earlier, more than a million people voted for Papandreou to become the leader of the party his father founded in 1974, and which Simitis had led since 1996. PASOK announced yesterday that 1,020,145 people had voted in Sunday’s poll, the first time that grassroots party members and self-proclaimed «friends» of the party voted for the party leader. Papandreou was the sole candidate and received 1,017,085 votes. There were 3,060 blank and spoiled ballots. Previously, party congresses attended by about 5,000 delegates would elect leaders. «I am very moved to undertake this new responsibility,» Papandreou said. «The responsibility is greater because of the great participation of citizens, our fellow citizens, even those who are not PASOK members, in this unprecedented electoral process which showed a will to participate.» Papandreou said that after the March 7 elections, «our priority will be to strengthen the position of the active citizen.» In his first meeting after the ceremony at the Harilaou Trikoupi Street offices, Papandreou called on the offices of the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE) and then the Federation of Greek Industries (SEV). The two organizations are in the middle of negotiations for a new collective labor agreement. «We respect your autonomy as unionists and at the same time consider you crucial social partners,» Papandreou told the GSEE leadership. He promised that his government would not roll back workers’ rights. SEV Chairman and Executive President Odysseas Kyriakopoulos said he and Papandreou had similar views on many economic and social issues. The foreign minister yesterday picked up New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis’s challenge for a television debate. «They should stop huffing and puffing about debates. If that is what they want, we want it twice as much,» Papandreou said. Karamanlis yesterday criticized PASOK’s economic record in a speech to Greek and foreign businessmen. According to television reports, he met yesterday with veteran MP Stelios Papathemelis, who left PASOK in December to found his own Democratic Renewal Party. Papathemelis is known for his strong patriotic views and close alliance with church circles. New Democracy will likely announce its alliance with Papathemelis on Thursday.