Tense climate

The government spokesman has repeatedly said that Prime Minister Costas Simitis will lead PASOK into the coming elections. Since last Sunday, however, his reassurances sound as unconvincing as ever. Foreign Minister George Papandreou’s remarks on his flight from Brussels did not merely pour more oil in the flames. They essentially gave a different dimension to the issue of succession, fueling a new political momentum inside the ruling Socialists. The overwhelming majority of PASOK members have long nourished hopes for a change in the party leadership ahead of the vote, believing that this move would increase PASOK’s chances in the coming election. This sentiment has produced a persistent questioning of Simitis’s authority. However, Papandreou’s intervention gave these expectations more concrete shape, casting doubt on the prime minister’s pre-eminent status. The foreign minister made clear to those who have been urging him to raise the question of succession that he has no intent of taking such step before the elections. This means that in light of the existing intra-party power balance, we should not expect any outside initiative to replace Simitis. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of imminent and significant developments. For the time being, all these indications seem like no more than wishful thinking. In truth, they are much more than just that. They are the manifestation of a strong desire of a party of functionaries that has trouble accepting the idea that it will lose its grip on the levers of power and, what’s more, following a landslide defeat. In other words, wishful thinking has evolved into strong party political pressure from within, creating a heavy mood that could alone trigger developments. For the time being, and through the lips of the government spokesman, Simitis is taking refuge in the official interpretation of the controversial remarks. However, the longer he clings to the top post, the more demands for his replacement will intensify. Even though no one is directly calling for him to step down, the surrounding climate is pushing him in that direction, making his succession look like PASOK’s sole hope ahead of the polls. The MRB poll and Papandreou’s posturing for leadership reinforce the impression that the fight for succession is over before it has even started. The question remains whether the prime minister will be able to withstand the suffocating psychological pressure. In light of current circumstances, it is doubtful whether he will manage to maintain his post through the end of PASOK’s four-year tenure.