New momentum?

Everything indicates that a switch in leadership in the ruling party is only a matter of days away. In his parliamentary speech on Monday night, Prime Minister Costas Simitis once again avoided taking a clear stance on the issue but his controversial remarks were open to no other interpretation. Under different circumstances perhaps this would be insubstantial. However, in light of the very tense climate of the recent period, what Simitis said can only mean one thing. This impression is reinforced by his previous remarks – his ambiguous answers at the foreign press briefing and, soon after, his persistent refusal to confirm that he will lead the Socialist party in the coming polls. Ever since it became clear that New Democracy’s lead has not only been consolidated but is also set to grow, the vast majority of PASOK cadres have begun to see a leadership change as the only hope. Foreign Minister George Papandreou already appears to have won the race for Simitis’s succession, being the one who can guarantee the best possible election result. Papandreou not only bears the name of his father, the late Andreas Papandreou, he is also a modest politician who enjoys high popularity across the political spectrum. By electing Papandreou party chairman, PASOK will make a comeback in the election race. Reunited, with a fresh public image and boosted morale, the Socialists will fight with reinforced prospects. Even so, its chances of winning the elections are small. It will be very hard to escape defeat because public demand for a change in government is very strong. PASOK’s long stay in power has politically wearied the ruling party. Despite the unquestionable achievements of the past decade, the accumulated problems stemming from corruption, political and business entanglements and, most crucially, the economic woes of lower-income groups have caused a great deal of disenchantment. The elections will, to a large degree, be determined by the size and the intensity of the political momentum provoked by Papandreou’s election. A switch will most likely energize the core of the party base, and although it would not be enough to ensure victory, it could be enough to fend off a strategic defeat. Every party has the inalienable right to change its leader, even in the final stretch to the polls. The crucial question is whether a last-minute renewal would succeed in swaying the masses. In order to renew its mandate, the ruling party will have to woo the lower-income strata that have been estranged by the administration’s reformist policies. That could be a daunting, if not impossible, task.