Latest pre-election leadership scenarios

The higher echelons of the ruling party cherish no illusions about the results of the upcoming elections. Even the few who still believed New Democracy had no appeal or that PASOK could pull ahead again have come down to earth with a bump. The negative climate for the ruling party has at last become apparent at the Maximos Mansion, strongly influencing Premier Costas Simitis. Colleagues say it may impel him to make decisions about remaining on the political stage. The day after It is generally believed that Simitis is finding it more and more difficult to stay in control of events and the government. Looming electoral defeat has activated the party’s survival instinct. PASOK members are acting openly with the day after the elections in mind. They are thinking about how they can survive and improve their positions if PASOK loses. Even the premier seems to have given up the fight to promote radical change. He has been restricted to struggling for political survival, as in the darkest days of the 1980s, though there was more genuine polarization at that time. Sources say Simitis wants to avoid serious political commotion before early 2003, so as to take his turn at the rotating European Union presidency. Though he is trying to invest the EU presidency with political and electoral significance, this is purely a personal ambition. The current internal party doubts about the premier are qualitatively different from those of previous years. The ones who questioned him then were those who disagreed with his policies or who felt sidelined, which is why their skepticism had limited effect. They created some trouble and obstacles for him, but never threatened to overthrow him. While Simitis was a winning card for the ruling party, he was acceptable even to those who disliked him. That is because PASOK elects the leader most likely to guarantee electoral victory and power. The irony is that Simitis is under threat from the very criterion that secured his rise to the top in 1996. The opposition to him is less strident than before, but more dangerous because it comes from the PASOK members who supported him in the past. In 1996 he was elected because he was seen as a winner, while in 2002 the same party is treating him as a loser. Hence all the fuss about who is to succeed him. Until next October, there is no question of upsetting the status quo. Internal party dissension will intensify, and conflict and problems will increase at all levels, but none of his aspiring replacements will push matters to the point of expediting the succession. The qualitative difference in the underlying competition among the would-be successors is that they are now acting openly in terms of a post-Simitis era. The imminent, crushing defeat in municipal and prefectural elections will determine the political climate and have a decisive effect on internal balances in the ruling party. It is an open secret that a number of party members are planning to raise the issue of the leadership. While there is always a large gap between intentions and actions, PASOK’s powerful instinct for self-preservation should not be underestimated. This party takes it for granted that it should exercise power. In 1996 the party went through a political overhaul, while retaining power. It elected Simitis as leader and nurtured its political strength. The success of that effort is a further incentive to use the same recipe again. A second change of skipper en route is the topic most commonly discussed in party back rooms. This is why the prime minister will not only face internal opposition but powerful pressure to relinquish the leadership before the parliamentary elections. George Papandreou The chances of Simitis resigning or calling early elections after the local government polls this October are nil. He is determined to remain in power for the EU presidency. He may even set in motion the procedure for his succession in fall 2003. In that case, the aspirant most likely to succeed would be Foreign Minister George Papandreou. The only thing that could threaten his candidacy would be a total failure of Greek-Turkish bilateral relations. Through the glamour of his dynasty (his father and grandfather were both notable prime ministers), his moderate political image and his connections in the West, Papandreou has acquired great popularity both with the general public and his party. He, not Simitis, is the one who seems capable of keeping the party in power, or at least of limiting the electoral damage. This is why more than 100 deputies have approached him in one way or another, directly or indirectly expressing their support. The specter of electoral defeat induces great insecurity in the parliamentary team, so that traditional groupings have fragmented and individual deputies are acting to ensure their own political survival. As a rule, they turn to the strongest successor-apparent. George Papandreou has never concealed his intention of standing for the party leadership when the issue arose. But he is determined to avoid anything that could be interpreted even as an indirect attempt to overturn Simitis as leader. He has adopted this careful tactic, not because he wants to secure the current leader’s nomination, but because he wants to promote himself as the one who can keep PASOK united and bridge the rift in the party. In other words, Papandreou is promising to reunite the party, bridging the gap between the modernizers and the pro-Andreas Papandreou factions, the party faithful and the party dissenters. The fact that the public and the party see the foreign minister as an alternative solution in the belief that under his leadership the party will do better at the elections annoys Simitis intensely. Until recently the premier’s strongest argument was that electoral victory was due to his own political clout. Though the inmates of the Maximos Mansion have no ideological quarrel with Papandreou, they are not too fond of him. The rivals The foreign minister’s edge over his rivals has forced them into an informal front aimed at reigning him in. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, PASOK secretary Costas Laliotis, Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou, Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos and Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou never miss a chance of hitting out at their competitor. George Papandreou will be facing trench warfare. Senior PASOK officials are also forming alliances for the post-Simitis era: One worth watching is Tsochadzopoulos and the premier’s acolyte Nikos Christodoulakis. Much depends on the party’s organizational meeting in June, which will have to decide whether the PASOK president will still be elected by the congress or by all party members, which Papandreou rightly believes would favor him. If PASOK fights the local elections with Simitis as leader and there is a congress to decide his successor following an electoral defeat, things will get complicated. Papandreou’s chief advantage today is the widespread impression that he can put the ruling party back in the game. But in the wake of a defeat this advantage would lose some of its value, because more inward-looking criteria would dominate the PASOK membership. For this reason, Venizelos, Laliotis and the rest prefer to do battle after the elections.