Papandreou – ready for the great leap forward

Changes look likely for the ruling PASOK party as Foreign Minister George Papandreou develops a leader’s profile that differs distinctly from those of both Prime Minister Costas Simitis and other aspiring party leaders. After a long period of preparation, and having recorded high popularity levels in public opinion polls and within PASOK, the foreign minister indicated last week that he was ready for the great leap forward. Although he has made it clear that he will be supporting Simitis, Papandreou spoke out at last Wednesday’s Executive Committee meeting against a decision by the premier and other leading party officials not to discuss changing the party’s charter at the party’s upcoming congress. His proposal was rejected, and at the Central Committee meeting two days later he criticized those who oppose turning PASOK into an open type of party, accusing them of serving petty partisan interests. Commenting on the present model of government, he mentioned the need for new policies that will not present magical solutions but will search for solutions through cooperation with social forces. The foreign minister’s strategy and recent interventions are not aimed at challenging the premier at this stage. In any case, it is obvious that the minister will maintain a strategic alliance with Simitis, but with the hope of emerging as his natural successor, even if that entails occasional clashes. Besides, by seeking to alter the PASOK party charter, and enhance internal party democracy, Papandreou has undermined the rumor that he fears conflict. At a time when the other leading party officials in the reformist wing of the party are keeping silent, and Defense Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos is avoiding direct collisions with the premier, Papandreou insisted on his opinion at the Central Committee meeting. But the foreign minister’s emergence as a possible leader is sure to spark reaction. Party cadres close to Simitis denied that the premier is displeased with the position Papandreou adopted at the Executive Committee meeting, but it is by no means certain that Maximos Mansion will remain apathetic if the foreign minister continues to develop a leader’s profile. Inevitably, some of the other leading aspirants to leadership will express their opposition. Sources say the minister’s period of grace has a definite expiration date, after which he will come under fire. This was the climate in which the Central Committee finished its two-day meeting which marked the official opening of the pre-congress period. Neither the reformists nor the supporters of Tsochadzopoulos are showing their hands until the prime minister makes his speech at the Thessaloniki International Fair. Restrained optimism at Maximos Mansion For the first time in many months, there are smiles once more at Maximos Mansion. After a difficult four-month phase for the government, Prime Minister Costas Simitis believes he has not only succeeded in stabilizing the political climate but is also gradually regaining lost ground, an advance he expects to see confirmed in opinion polls following the appearance of the political leaders at the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF). The premier’s restrained optimism is based on political developments overall and within PASOK which make him hope to come out of October’s party congress in a stronger position. The Maximos Mansion expects that the recent actions by Archbishop Christodoulos and the line taken by the conservative opposition New Democracy party on the issue of the removal of any reference to religion on identity cards will favor the premier’s strategy of drawing a dividing line against conservative forces that will rally PASOK’s electoral base and sideline Rigillis St. Similarly, recent developments in the economic sector – once the premier’s strongest card, but looking more like his Achilles’ heel – look good for Simitis. Sources close to the premier say the favorable climate that began when the Latsis group expressed interest in buying 30 percent of Hellenic Petroleum will be further enhanced by Simitis’s presentation at the TIF end of the week. Also, the latest messages from PASOK itself look promising in the run-up to the party congress. Despite the apparently consensual approach Simitis has employed since returning from vacation, senior PASOK officials say the premier has managed to continue gaining ground without making significant concessions to party dissidents. So far, without major skirmishes within the party, Simitis has put across the message that the congress will under no circumstances reach binding decisions on government policy for the remainder of the four-year term. And he has made a show of force against the party’s barons.

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