Leadership change

The volatile climate that has emerged in PASOK recently is affecting the equilibrium of our political system and the day-to-day administration of state affairs. On the face of it, everything functions as before, but the change is visible to a trained eye. The discipline of the government machine is on the wane, in the sense that political functionaries have one eye fixed on ongoing developments. Most importantly, the power center has shifted. This may concern the political equilibrium at PASOK’s top echelons of power and not government decision-making, but it is clear that this situation cannot go on for much longer. The widespread impression that Costas Simitis’s days at the helm of the Socialist party are numbered and that he may step down from the premiership sometime soon are having a paralyzing effect. As regards the impact on the broader political sphere, New Democracy is – understandably – keeping a close eye on developments inside the ruling party. The conservatives would obviously prefer to take on a worn-out Simitis but, knowing that they may eventually have to encounter the current foreign minister, they are also bracing for a potential clash with the popular George Papandreou. No doubt every party has the right to change its leader, even in the last stretch to the ballot box. In this case, however, the overwhelming majority of PASOK cadres want to recreate the 1996 success story, when Simitis’s appointment as Socialist party leader gave PASOK a whole new political dynamic, which brought two consecutive general election victories. It is not certain that the recipe will be tried anew. But even if it were, it is far from certain that it would yield fruit. PASOK’s long stay in power has inflicted great political harm. Despite the government’s unquestionable achievements over the last decade, the accumulated problems and, most importantly, the economic woes of the lower-income strata have exacerbated their political disillusionment. The incumbent foreign minister bears the burden of his family name, yet he is a modest and popular politician. If Simitis finally decides to call it quits, it appears certain that under Papandreou the ruling party will be able to make a strong comeback in the election race. Reunited, with a fresh image and a boost in morale, PASOK will be able to stage a fight under whole new circumstances and prospects. Even so, however, its hopes will be limited. The election battle will to a large extent be decided by the initiatives and, most crucially, the mistakes in both camps. The public demand for government change is strong and will be very hard to quash.