Greek President Constantine Caramanlis, the conservative politician who brought Greece back to democracy from military rule in 1974, announced yesterday that he would resign. The resignation followed hard on the heels of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou's announcement Saturday that he would not endorse Mr. Caramanlis for a second five-year term -- an announcement that stunned political circles here.
In speaking to his party's central committee, Mr. Papandreou had also said that he would seek to drastically curb the president's power by amending the Constitution. Papandreou wants to eliminate the president's sole right to call elections, dissolve Parliament, appoint a government, and call referendums on important national questions.
Mr. Caramanlis, the founder of the conservative New Democracy Party, has beenconsidered a stabilizing force in Greek politics. Although Papandreou called the conservative's term as president ``irreproachable,'' he said that ``since the 1975 Constitution is Mr. Caramanlis's it would be strange if we asked him to sit as President in the framework of an amended constitution.''
Papandreou's central committee unanimously approved the decision. Caramanlis announced his resignation in a letter to the Parliament's president, Ioannis Alevras, who now becomes interim president of Greece.
The decision has plunged Greece into political uncertainty, since no party in the 300-seat Parliament commands the two-thirds majority needed to elect a new president. If the Parliament fails to elect a president in balloting set to begin on Friday, the legislature will be dissolved and national elections will be held within 30 days.
Papandreou's announcement seemed to be based on his assessment of recent political shifts. The gap between his ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the opposition New Democracy Party has narrowed to less than 5 percent according to recent polls. Support for PASOK has dwindled both on the left and in the center.
Left-wing members of PASOK, including a majority of its activist base, have little tolerance for Caramanlis, who played a key role in keeping them from power for most of the last 30 years. They regard him as the main obstacle to more radical domestic and international policies.
Meanwhile, many centrist voters have begun to call themselves the ``cut hands,'' implying that they had cut off the hands with which they voted for Papandreou in 1981. These voters say they will never make the same mistake again.
On the left, the pro-Moscow Communist Party and the smaller Eurocommunists have moved into vociferous opposition to Papandreou. Earlier they attacked him for his alleged intention to support Caramanlis for a second term. They have sought, with some success according to polls, to attract discontented leftist voters by portraying Papandreou as right-wing and a traitor to the cause of change. They also have recently used their considerable power in the trade unions to encourage a series of nagging strikes that have created a mood of malaise in the country.
But Papandreou's dramatic announcement appeared to have taken the wind out of the communists' sails. If Saturday's initial reaction is any indication, both announced moves will reenergize his party's political activists, who had become despondent over the seeming certainly that the prime minister would back Caramanlis and over what many regard as the lack of real change in the 31/2 years since PASOK came to power.
Before the announcement, a few hundred dejected PASOK supporters stood outside the Athens hotel where the central committee met, demonstrating their opposition to Caramanlis's reelection.
When the committee's decison filtered into the hotel lobby, there was a moment of disbelief. Then PASOK members began cheering. They burst into the street to tell the demonstrators outside, who exploded with enthusiasm and began chanting slogans and dancing.
The cheering continued all day, as PASOK supporters gathered in the center of Athens, waving party banners and honking horns. But the euphoria may dissipate when the implications of Saturday's coup de th'e^atre become evident.
The move amounts to a shift to the left, which will make Greek politics more polarized than ever.
``This creates an acute political crisis, a crisis of regime,'' asserts a centrist political source. ``By removing Caramanlis, [Papandreou] has removed the one figure with the prestige and popularity to attract a . . . consensus. And by tinkering with a Constitution that has assurred unprecedented political stability and calm for over 10 years, he is threatening the future of the nation.''
PASOK chose as its candidate Christos Sartzetakis, a Supreme Court judge who rose to prominence as the investigating judge in the 1963 assassination of popular left-wing member of parliament Grigoris Lambrakis. That incident became an international cause c'el`ebre as the subject of Constantin Costa-Gavras's film ``Z.''
Many members of New Democracy are not dissatisfied with the turn of events. They can now run the next election as the party that supports Caramanlis and that wishes to protect a Constitution that has served the country well.