New Leader Breaks Gently With Greece's Socialist Past
Simitis seeks economic reforms and closer ties to EU and NATO
ATHENS — Costas Simitis collected a second political title June 30. That may mean Greece is moving away from the legacy of longtime socialist leader Andreas Papandreou.
Mr. Simitis, already prime minister, is now chairman of Greece's ruling Pasok party as well. He seems strongly positioned to break with Mr. Papandreou's socialist, go-it-alone philosophy and bring Greece more closely into Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO.
Papandreou died last month, after giving up the premiership to Simitis in January because of ill health. In late June, more than 5,000 representatives from his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) convened at the cavernous hall of the Olympic Stadium to elect a new party leader.
The main course on the menu was pastitsio, the name for a meat and spaghetti pie that in colloquial Greek is used to describe any hastily thrown together situation. It seemed an appropriate dish for what at first looked to be a chaotic undertaking as the party faced its first meeting without its founder, Papandreou.
The struggle for the leadership of Pasok pitted pro-European reformers, led by Simitis, against Papandreou loyalists, led by Interior Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos.
Mr. Tsochadzopoulos told the delegates they were not gathered to articulate any new visions, saying, "We are not starting from scratch. We have a vision and that is socialism."
But in the end, delegates narrowly handed the party leadership to Simitis, who in his first months as prime minister has pursued reforms somewhat at odds with Papandreou's socialist vision.
Observers in Athens say that, despite his dual titles, Simitis will not follow Papandreou's strongman philosophy. They expect a more collegial form of politics to emerge.
Since the early days of Pasok, Simitis has been characterized as the party rebel. He resigned from Cabinet posts twice after opposing Papandreou's economic policies. By contrast, Tsochadzopoulos was consistently loyal to Papandreou's third-world-style socialist policies.
Since taking office as prime minister, Simitis has paid visits to Western European nations and the United States. He seeks a stronger role for Greece in the Balkans, closer ties with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a crackdown on tax evaders, and strict economic management, with the goal of Greece joining the upcoming European Economic and Monetary Union.
He also pledges to oversee a long-awaited partial privatization of the national telecommunications company, OTE, and the national petroleum corporation, and to push for the completion of EU-funded public works, such as a new Athens airport. Simitis has offered to resolve longstanding frictions with Turkey through mediation in the international court at the Hague.
Before the Pasok congress convened, Simitis announced he would resign as prime minister unless he was made party chairman. "This is the best way to keep the party united, to govern well, and to win the next elections," he told delegates.
Observers say that Simitis won because he convinced delegates that the party could win the 1997 elections if it backed his reforms.
But Simitis must undertake his agenda for change while giving proper honor to the accomplishments of Papandreou. Papandreou's establishment of Pasok, a noncommunist left-wing party, placed "a modernizing stamp on Greece's society, economy, and polity, contributing decisively to the bridging of the deep schism left behind by the [Greek] civil war [of 1947 to 1949]," says Theodore Couloumbis, professor of international relations at the University of Athens. "Papandreou ... transformed the Greek left from a revolutionary to a reformist role."
Pasok's founder also will be remembered for his thirst for power. A charismatic leader, Papandreou was able to sway Greek emotions using patriotic and nationalistic themes. But some political observers here say his quest to achieve and maintain power corrupted Greece's political culture and contributed to its estrangement from the EU and NATO, especially during the "lost decade" under Papandreou's leadership (1981-1989).
Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a spokesman for the conservative opposition New Democracy party, says Greece under Simitis "is faced with enormous and critical problems at home and abroad, problems that the government, with its present structure, cannot handle."
But privately, conservatives acknowledge that Simitis now is a formidable opponent. Considering his high ranking in public opinion polls, Simitis and Pasok could be in a strong position when elections roll around in October 1997.
In fact, it seems the only thing that could bring down Simitis is if Pasok members forget the words of their party slogan: "Pasok is here, united and strong." If Papandreou loyalists within Pasok fail to rally around Simitis, it is possible that he could be forced to call early elections this fall.