NEWS

Skirmishes now, and the big derby later

Prime Minister Costas Simitis uttered the slogan «Counterattack now» once again last week from the podium of PASOK’s Central Committee. But everyone focused their attention on his revealing unscripted comment: «Whoever thinks that the negative image doesn’t harm them, because their stance overcomes it, is mistaken. The current drags everyone along, without exception. And above all it drags along those who think they are the exception.» This was an indirect but clear admission, and at the same time a desperate appeal. The message to his would-be successors was that nobody will survive a political and electoral wipeout. He called for unity and for the party to rally, not under the banner of a common goal but in the name of a common danger. In reality, all of this was nothing more than a rhetorical device to be consumed by the media and forgotten like all its predecessors. The overwhelming majority of PASOK officials already see Simitis as a leader with an expiry date. They want to change captains en route, electing a new leader before the elections. They are impelled to this by the party’s instinct for self-preservation. Simitis not only is not considered to be a winner, but is now being viewed as a factor in defeat, «a burden on the party,» as one serving minister told Kathimerini. Simitis’s intentions The question is not whether there will be a change of leadership, but when and how. The anticipated defeat at the municipal and prefectural elections in October will inevitably cause upheaval within the party and will probably encourage some deputies to raise the issue of leadership. In all probability, however, there will be no follow-up, because the leaders of the ruling party will take action to gloss over the issue. It is well known that Simitis is very keen to take the presidency of the European Union for the first half of next year and wants to remain prime minister until then. His intentions will become clear from how he acts in July-September 2003. Some predict that he himself will raise the issue of his successor, citing an earlier statement of his that two four-year terms are enough for one head of government. The opinion polls – which offer no hope of success at the next elections – are pushing him in that direction. There is every indication that the opposition New Democracy party’s established lead will not be reversed but will increase even further. The likelihood that Simitis will raise the succession issue of his own volition maintains the demand for a change of leadership which has risen up from the base of the party and is expressed by its officials. The widespread feeling that Simitis’s leadership is coming to a close has shifted the focus of dissent within the party. It is now centered less on questioning the leader and more on competition between his aspiring successors. So while PASOK is going through one of its worst phases, the voices of internal criticism are not raised very high. Nearly everyone is acting according to the logic of the post-Simitis era. The once-powerful modernizing wing of the party has fragmented and its members are trying to join the camp of one or another would-be successor. The succession By general admission, Foreign Affairs Minister George Papandreou is well ahead of the opposition and if the decision about the leadership is taken before the elections it is most unlikely that he will lose. This is why his rivals want the contest to take place after the elections. They think that, following an electoral defeat, PASOK will elect a leader, not according to his popularity, but according to whether he can oppose ND. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos proposed the decision be made at an upcoming meeting so that PASOK would go to the elections with Simitis as leader. He argued that this would rein in the antagonism among the rivals for the leadership, but what he wanted was to prevent the succession being decided before the elections. But this way of handling it is diametrically opposed to the party’s instinct for self-preservation and it will fail. If the premier raises the succession issue in July 2003, then obviously nothing will stop it. But if he chooses to remain at his post and lead PASOK into the elections, he will probably find himself facing an outbreak of opposition from within his party. In that case, Papandreou would see it as a green light and respond to «the appeal to save the party,» as a close colleague of his told Kathimerini. Until then, however, he will do nothing that could be considered a challenge to Simitis. The other aspiring leaders are caught up in a contradiction. On the one hand they support Simitis and want to keep him at the helm of the government and party until the elections, but they also have to challenge him sometimes so that the party membership doesn’t identify them with him and blame them for the party’s decline and looming defeat. The Executive Bureau Last week Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou took two steps which caused a stir. At the meeting of the Executive Bureau she protested vehemently and justifiably at the non-paper against her by Transport Minister Christos Verelis. The following day, at the Cabinet meeting, she made a comment about the closure of Anagnostopoulou Street (where the prime minister lives, after an incident involving an armed man), which was clearly aimed at Simitis. At the same meeting negative comments were heard from Venizelos, Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou and Tassos Yiannitisis. In Parliament Yiannis Kapsis, Speaker Apostolos Kaklamanis and Press Minister Christos Protopappas took shots at the premier’s adviser Giorgos Pantayias for the infamous non-paper that was leaked to the press. The previous week Health Minister Alekos Papadopoulos, who has since resigned, criticized Maximos Mansion for «political wretchedness.» The grim climate of the past few days has affected Prime Minister Costas Simitis himself. A year ago he threatened to resign in order to induce an early convening of the party congress, but he cannot use such a maneuver now. But there seems to be no foundation to the rumor going around PASOK that he will call for double elections in October. The July meeting will not provide him with a way out either. What will be decided there will be the method of transition to the post-Simitis era. The proposal by Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos that the party institute vice presidents will probably not be accepted, due to the opposition of the aspiring successors. But a new method of electing the leadership will probably be approved. The party president will be elected by a general vote of members, while the general secretary and the Executive Bureau will be elected by the congress. This decision could be considered a triumph for Papandreou. For a long time he has persisted in calling for the president to be elected by a general vote and not by the congress, because he rightly believes this election method would favor him. But his victory on that point may prove Pyrrhic. If he is elected president of PASOK he will have at his side a powerful party secretary and an equally powerful Executive Bureau, by virtue of their enhanced political legitimacy. Though it would be an exaggeration to speak of dual leadership of the party, the new leader will certainly be surrounded by a leading group which, as a rule, he will not control and whose composition will be extremely difficult to change. In other words, balancing the party leader’s power will be much more effective than it has been so far.