NEWS

Simitis seeks stronger hand after Congress

Prime Minister Costas Simitis will aim to strengthen his position against party rivals at the 6th Congress of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) which begins today and ends Sunday. A total of 6,353 delegates will elect the party president and the Central Committee, which in turn will elect the Executive Bureau and a new secretary-general. Environment and Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis is the heavy favorite to succeed Costas Skandalidis in the latter post. The congress was initially supposed to take place in March 2002. However, a series of policy reverses for the government earlier this year, notably on the reform of social security and the continuing opposition by party stalwarts to Simitis’s reformist policies, led the latter to demand an earlier date in order to clear the air. Simitis had originally used strong language, saying that he refused to be held hostage, and offered his resignation in June to browbeat a skeptical Executive Bureau into recommending that the congress be brought forward. Simitis’s goal is to improve on the 64 percent of the votes he received in the previous congress, in 1999, and to help elect more of his supporters to the Central Committee. Simitis’s rivals are equally determined to diminish his stature. It is likely that, as in 1999, they will not present a rival to Simitis for PASOK’s presidency but will instead cast blank ballots. They will try to increase their representation in the Central Committee, where they hold 74 out of 180 seats. The dissidents, who long for the days of PASOK’s late founder Andreas Papandreou, are outnumbered at the congress but have shown themselves to be far more disciplined in voting. Simitis’s backers are a more heterogeneous bunch, including some top ministers who have set their own agenda, aiming to succeed Simitis, and are actually making overtures to the hardline Socialists. Simitis has succeeded recently in bringing those elements – including, notably, Interior Minister Vasso Papandreou and twice-sacked former minister Theodoros Pangalos – back into the fold, but they are far from unconditional admirers. The extent to which Simitis will feel confident to pursue his stated policies after the congress will be made clear in the Cabinet reshuffle almost certain to follow.