Next Act of Greek Political Drama Unwritten as Titan Exits Stage


GREEKS may be deafened by silence with the anticipated exit of one of their most charismatic leaders from the political stage.

They have come to accept that Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who has been in the hospital since Nov. 20, is unlikely ever to resume his duties. But they do not look forward to a far-less-exciting era in Greek politics on the horizon.

No other politician comes close to Mr. Papandreou's prestige or that of former President Constantine Karamanlis, who retired this year. Both men, through the force of their personalities, reinforced Greeks' passion for democratic politics after military rule ended in 1974.

Mr. Karamanlis, prime minister for 14 years and president for eight, restored civilian government after the fall of the military dictatorship and founded the conservative New Democracy party.

Papandreou, whose father also served as prime minister, inspired voters to rally primarily for a personality rather than a cohesive party, says Richard Clogg, an authority on modern Greek history at Oxford University in Britain.

And like Karamanlis, the Harvard-educated Papandreou played a key role in restoring democracy to Greece, founding the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in 1974. He nearly doubled its support in every election until taking over Greece's helm in 1981. His government, like that of Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, benefited from a leftward shift in politics after years of dictatorship.

Some of the Greek press even compared Papandreou to Jesus.

"There aren't any more leaders that we feel so strongly about anymore after Papandreou," says Kitsa Hanioti, an Athens resident.

A succession battle looks set between Interior Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos, Defense Minister Gerassimos Arsenis, and a former industry minister, Costas Simitis. But no one has dared raise the idea of resigning with the ailing Papandreou.

"The new generation is much grayer" in Greek politics, claims Richard Crampton, a professor of Balkan history at Oxford University in Britain.

The lack of strong personalities will change in the way Greeks vote. The electorate will decide on who to vote for "depending on the way parties organize themselves and pool their strength," Professor Crampton says.

But as Greece shifts politically, it must hold to its current economic course, Crampton warns, regardless of which party wins the next general elections, set for 1997. "If Greece still wants to join in a single currency partnership with the other EU members in 1999, she has to adhere to the strict fiscal policies in place," he says.

Even so, Greece's eligibility for the single currency is by no means certain. The country depends heavily on aid from the European Union, faces 10 percent unemployment and 8.5 percent inflation, and must privatize many industries before the 1999 deadline.

Both PASOK and New Democracy say they would keep to an austere economic policy. They also will likely hold to a relatively steady path in foreign policy.

This pragmatism, too, is part of Papandreou's legacy. The fiery leader vowed, as a candidate, to lead his country out of NATO and the EU. But once in office, he admitted that withdrawing from the EU would hurt Greece's economy, and he never followed through on his threats over NATO.

Controversy surrounding Papandreou persists, however, especially concerning his wife, Dimitra. The former Olympic Airways stewardess gained notoriety in 1989 during her affair with Papandreou when he was still married to his first wife. Dimitra became Papandreou's office director and has not ruled out a bid for parliament. But her husband's departure from power would likely end any political ambitions she might have.

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