NEWS

Fallout from Papadopoulos interview

Why would an experienced political party such as PASOK create a crisis out of an issue that could have caused far less damage to the party? Why did the originally mild reaction from the prime minister’s office [to Health Minister Alekos Papadopoulos’s decision to retire from politics after the next election] turn into an attempt to annihilate the minister, even though he himself had not complained about the obstacles government officials had put in the way of his health reforms? Why was opposition leader Costas Karamanlis more voluble on the issue than PASOK secretary Costas Laliotis? What is unusual about this situation is that Papadopoulos, at the peak of his career, has decided to withdraw from active politics, despite having created an advanced reform package. The crises of nerves within PASOK, and to some extent within the New Democracy party, judging by its leader’s reaction, is more because of the health minister’s decision itself and not so much because of his comments about a «television democracy.» It is the act itself that questions not only his own party’s mentality but the prevailing view that a political career is a life-long profession. Obviously, Papadopoulos’s decision to publicly announce that he would not be a candidate in the next elections is not the best thing for the ruling party. However, with the right handling, the party could have emerged unscathed – and possibly with some benefits. The prime minister’s initial reaction leaked to television was identical to the government spokesman’s statement to Flash radio: «(The announcement) has upset all of us. I hope he will reconsider, because we need him. We expect Alekos to stay with us on the front line.» The prime minister’s office let it be known that Papadopoulos’s decision was a personal one that would not create any problems, as the health minister would remain in the government to complete his work. At the same time, Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos’s spontaneous reaction was much closer to what followed: «I believe that (Papadopoulos) has enough experience in the party to know that he can raise his views within the party first, to discuss them with all of us – the members and citizens – in order to clarify any desire he might have to deliver a message.» This statement summed up an entire mentality. The development minister could not imagine why a minister would announce his departure from active politics for personal reasons, and that is basically why he does not recognize Papadopoulos’s right to decide what kind of life he wants to lead. He demands a debate with the party priesthood! The party members and citizens were thrown in for good measure. Commenting on the case, a PASOK deputy told Kathimerini that he didn’t know what Papadopoulos’s real reasons were and didn’t much care, since it was incomprehensible that Papadopoulos would leave unless he were ill or had a serious family problem. He was spoiling things for everyone else, showing, in effect, that life-long leadership was not a given. Papadopoulos didn’t actually compare himself to anyone else but this in fact was what he was doing and explained the passionate nature of the reactions. Reason for leaks The case took a new turn on Monday. According to reliable sources, Prime Minister Costas Simitis (who was on an official visit to China) received a message from Athens that if he did not react more strongly he would harm his own standing. The result was that journalists were fed a more dramatic version of the telephone conversation Simitis had had with Papadopoulos on the Saturday night, when his plane made a refuelling stop in Tashkent. The purpose was to boost Simitis’s image as a leader and pave the way for removing Papadopoulos from his ministerial post. On the same day, party secretary Costas Laliotis released an extremely critical statement: «… the timing and the manner of (Papadopoulos’s) announcement permits some people to link it with a negative climate for PASOK and others with the changeover in the prefecture of Thesprotia from a two-seat to a single-seat electoral district.» At the same time, Laliotis also leaked an amended version of the prime minister’s conversation with Papadopoulos. Asked to comment on Laliotis’s statement, a former PASOK minister immediately raised the question of whether Laliotis would have said the same thing if Papadopoulos’s statement had been given to the newspaper To Vima (instead of to Kathimerini). When we pointed out that this could not be proved, he replied that it was nothing new and that, in any case, the fact that Papadopoulos gave the interview to Kathimerini «raised a problem for the political protection system.» According to the same source, the fact that PASOK is facing defeat in the October municipal elections means «they are looking for scapegoats and this opportunity was too good to miss.» «The communication formula is tried and tested. On the one hand, the party secretary is fighting tooth and nail to rally the party and on the other, the minister is giving up the fight for personal reasons and spoiling the climate. There is more than a whiff of Stalinism in his handling of the situation,» said the source. Commenting on the way the health minister’s statement was received, another current minister told Kathimerini that Papadopoulos had not been popular at party headquarters and that the minister had recently provoked adverse comments with his unbending stance on certain issues. «The system is carnivorous and does not recognize personal sensibilities, nor does it allow for divergent behavior. He should have expected such treatment,» said his colleague. According to reliable sources, Laliotis is in favor of dismissing Papadopoulos, claiming that otherwise PASOK will have to «close up shop.» He also claims that Papadopoulos should be dismissed without meeting first with the prime minister. It was deliberately leaked to the press that there would be no such meeting, while last Thursday, To Vima’s front page led with a story that Simitis had asked Papadopoulos to resign so that he would not be forced to dismiss him. This report was strongly denied by acting government spokesman Telemachos Hytiris, as well as by Papadopoulos, who said that he was ready to resign at any moment, at the prime minister’s discretion. The propaganda machine had already been set in motion to create the impression that he was begging to be allowed to stay at his post. But journalists not playing this game were using phrases such as «Papadopoulos’s political future at stake,» or that he would be «swallowing a bitter pill.» These phrases are meaningless, given that he has already said he is to withdraw from active politics. The health minister has been accused of chosing the wrong time to announce his decision and thereby harming his party. The truth is that any time he had chosen, he would have provoked the same reaction. If he had waited until elections were declared, he would have been accused of striking a blow at party morale at the most crucial time, just when the battle was about to begin. Moreover, there would not have been enough time to find suitable candidates for the Thesprotia seat, nor to prepare them sufficiently. In other words, he would have had difficulty in choosing a good time. The second criticism of Papadopoulos is that he announced his decision in an interview and did not first inform the prime minister. This could be valid criticism but it isn’t. A minister is obliged to inform the prime minister of anything that affects the operation of the government. A decision not to run again for elections has political repercussions but does not impinge upon the functioning of government. It is a completely personal issue. He could have informed the prime minister, but he was not obliged to do so. The mentality According to sources, Papadopoulos did not do so because he knew Simitis would press him to reconsider. As the former PASOK minister told Kathimerini: «It was lucky that Alekos did not tell him in advance, because the next day there would have been comments in the political columns humiliating him. We’ve seen it happen before. Simitis would have commented on the issue to a few of his associates and from there things would have taken their usual course,» he said. The rumor being circulated that he is «a minister in suspension» reveals the type of mentality at work here. In our democracy, ministers are always «in suspension» until the next reshuffle, even the prime minister himself (until the end of his four-year term). Perhaps the following interpretation by another deputy best explains it: «Many of us feel we are married to power and we cannot bear the thought of being separated from it.» The idea that Papadopoulos has been turned into a «minister of limited responsibility» is even more arbitrary. No one has ever thought of saying as much when ministers in Western European countries, even prime ministers, announce their departure from active politics. Whatever happens, the time and manner (of the announcement) are details that have been turned into a major issue to divert attention from what is important politically – which is the fact that a relatively young politician with a record of important reforms cannot stand it any more and is retiring from the political scene. «When worthy people make decisions like these, then I am afraid that politics really are in crisis,» said Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos. The postscript to this affair will be written this afternoon. Simitis has ignored Laliotis’s pressure to fire Papadopoulos without meeting with him. According to rumors, the decision to remove him has been made and a successor found, although on Thursday the government spokesman said there was no irrevocable decision. Simitis is also reportedly hearing arguments to keep Papadopoulos on to complete the health reform. Meanwhile, university doctors are on tenterhooks, as for them, his removal would be a godsend.