The leopard changes spots

The spectacular defenestration of PASOK general secretary Costas Laliotis raises three major questions: Why did it take so long? Why did it happen at all? What will this do to PASOK? Laliotis’s replacement by Michalis Chrysochoidis – something like the experienced bruiser being pushed out by the soft-spoken «nice guy» in the gang – is the most dramatic incident in the ruling party since it named Costas Simitis as prime minister to replace an ailing Andreas Papandreou in January 1996 and then Simitis managed to get himself elected party leader the following June after the party’s founder died. Simitis, although a founding member, had never seemed to be at ease with the powerful, populist political machine that he was now in charge of. But his talk of reform and PASOK’s strength as a «movement» (based on its giving the previously forgotten farmers and workers a share of the largesse of European funding which coincided with the party’s rise to power in 1981) created a winning combination. It was this need for the renewal of leader and attitude which prompted Andreas Papandreou’s son, George Papandreou, to throw his weight behind Simitis in a highly charged congress, going against the tide which expected people who had been closer to the party founder to carry the day. Even Laliotis, who at 23 had been the youngest among the party’s founder members in 1974, and was often seen as a favored son of Papandreou, backed Simitis. PASOK, headless, had realized that to stay in power it would have to show a different face. They knew the concentrated wisdom of Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s maxim: If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change. It worked. Change kept PASOK in power and at the same time it allowed the government to pursue economic policies that got Greece into the eurozone. A PASOK party in opposition would have fought the necessary austerity measures tooth and nail. But, even though it worked, the whole system looked a bit incongruous, as if the mild-mannered, consensus-seeking Simitis was a cuckoo that had taken over another bird’s nest. This went on for seven years, through two electoral victories, in which it appeared that Simitis’s reformers and the «traditionalist» faction were in an uneasy alliance which kept them in power by bringing in two separate bags of votes. Both benefited, in that Simitis could rely on the bedrock of the party and its machinery, while cadres could enjoy the fruits of remaining in power – as so many of them are dependent on state sector jobs. But the balance was never easy. The close shave in the elections of April 2000, in which PASOK edged out New Democracy by a mere 70,000 votes, showed that 90 percent of the electorate had opted for parties at the center – one a little left and the other a little right. But when, a year later, the government unveiled social security reforms which were taken by the excitable media and unions to mean nothing other than more work for less pay, the «traditionalists» in PASOK, backed by anti-globalization activists, rose up in noisy revolt, forcing the government to back down. In perhaps the most ignominious phase of his tenure, Simitis sought solace in the arms of Laliotis, the longtime party strategist and propagandist. The result: New Democracy was to blame. Simitis followed Laliotis’s recipe in a bid to polarize the electorate, shifting blame for the party’s woes on a third party. The gap between the conservatives and Socialists kept growing. Not getting the message, the government kept on hitting against the «Right.» Simitis’s popularity in the polls remained high, whereas his party sank and the number of undecideds grew. And still no one seemed to realize that it was the centrist voters who had given PASOK its latest mandate who did not know if they would vote for the party now that it was floundering about uselessly. Either Simitis did not see things this way or he was unable to break the bonds of the «Old PASOK.» When in late 2001 Laliotis jumped from the Public Works Ministry (where he bragged that in a decade in office he had only visited Brussels once), the marriage between Old and New PASOK appeared doomed to go on. And yet, 20 months later, we have the sharp shock of divorce. As Laliotis personified the party core, the one that is based on mid- and low-level apparatchiks, and not on people who have proved themselves in other spheres, he was confident that he had a strong power base. This made it difficult for Simitis to clash with him, but it also made the breakup inevitable. Politically, Laliotis had failed as general secretary. The party kept losing ground in opinion polls and there was a widespread feeling among members that the next elections – which must be held by next spring – were all but lost. Also, Laliotis had handicapped the party by forming a new pole at PASOK’s headquarters in a bid to counter the presence of members of Simitis’s reformist wing. Laliotis was not even on speaking terms with Executive Bureau member Michalis Neonakis, a key Simitis aide. Whether or not Laliotis was behind Avriani publisher Giorgos Kouris’s claims of graft by prominent members of the reformist camp, including Neonakis, cannot be known and is all but irrelevant: The general secretary clearly enjoyed the discomfort of his party rivals and did not do anything to help. This is probably where Laliotis’s removal became inevitable. Simitis, pleased by the success of Greece’s EU presidency over the past six months, was greatly irritated by the fact that things were flying out of control on the domestic front. Laliotis was not helping combat the impression that Simitis cared more about the EU than local problems and he also appeared to be relaxed with the idea that PASOK would lose the elections. Laliotis’s attitude undermined the hard work of those who had helped contribute toward the success of the EU presidency. In his parting shots at the PASOK Central Committee meeting, Laliotis showed also how scathing he could be with regard to other successes, such as Chrysochoidis’s success in leading the police effort to destroy the November 17 terrorist gang. In a display of the tactics he has used throughout his career – making the greatest possible gains at the expense of colleagues while also exploiting public sympathies – Laliotis claimed that he was being removed because he had led PASOK into anti-war demonstrations before the Iraq campaign and so had become the target of US Ambassador Thomas Miller. This implied that Chrysochoidis and others, such as Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who have good relations with US officials, were pro-American lapdogs. With the skill of an experienced assassin, Laliotis drove in the knife while declaring himself a sacrificial victim. If Simitis had any doubts about replacing him, they must have been dispelled as he listened to Laliotis’s speech. Furthermore, used to being the enfant terrible of PASOK, Laliotis could not keep himself from referring to the nickname he was given when he was the youngest of the party’s luminaries, the «divine infant» (perhaps best translated as the better-known el Nino). The irony is that he was being booted out of the party because the child prodigy appeared to represent all that was old in PASOK. And it is doubly ironic that Simitis and George Papandreou appeared to be opening the way for a succession in the party leadership that will allow the more Western-looking members such as Papandreou to take over a changed party when the time comes. Although many were disappointed by the Cabinet reshuffle yesterday – which, after the drama of Laliotis’s end, was decidedly anti-climactic – the political landscape has changed drastically. Simitis realized there was no hope in carrying on as before. The old guard in his party was standing back and letting him and his closest aides hang. Knowing that he is responsible for victory or defeat, he is finally making the party in his own image. It is a gamble, but the odds are better than they were. With the limited Cabinet reshuffle, PASOK is keeping its bridges with its past and with the Left, while positioning itself to go for the center-right voters who have always felt more comfortable with Simitis than with his party. It is time for change, in order to stay the same.

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