GEORGE YENNIMATAS was one of Greece's most popular and highly respected politicians.
Following the Socialists' electoral victory last autumn Yennimatas requested the twin portfolio of National Economy and Finance in full knowledge that he was dying of lung cancer and therefore signing his last political testament. Some questioned the wisdom of the Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, in appointing a sick man to the tasks of implementing an austerity programme, halting inflation, curbing tax evasion and shrinking Greece's huge budget deficit. Yet Yennimatas was probably the only senior Pasok politician who could convince both the unions and the average taxpayer of the need for stringent, long-lasting economic measures.
During his short stint in office he managed to complete the 1994 budget and to negotiate an important tax reform bill with union leaders which was due to be voted on in Parliament this week. He also succeeded in rolling over the government's 1993 fiscal deficit by persuading banks and the public to buy government securities and Treasury bills. He may have succeeded where others would almost certainly have failed exactly because of his failing health: both friends and foes realised he was striving for an honest deal irrespective of political plaudits.
The son of a financial adviser to the Greek government, Yennimatas trained as a civil engineer and became involved with politics while a student at the Athens Polytechnic. In 1973 he became a founding member of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) and remained from then on a close personal friend of Andreas Papandreou. First elected to parliament in 1981, he served the Socialist government as Interior Minister (1981-84) and Health Minister (1984-85). He continued in the latter post after the elections of 1985 and became Labour Minister in 1987. Following Pasok's defeat in the elections of 1989, Yennimatas was appointed Party Whip, but was called upon to join the Zolotas Cabinet of National Unity in 1989-90 as Minister of
Three of the four ministerial positions held by Yennimatas became associated with national political crusades which changed everyday life. As Interior Minister he laid the foundations for local government in Greece; as Health Minister he overhauled, reorganised and expanded the country's national health system (ESY); and as National Economy Minister he attempted to halt Greece's financial decline and to meet EC standards for healthy growth. Although the success of his economic reforms remains inconclusive, their merits are not disputed even by his right-wing political adversaries.
Yennimatas consistently polled well in elections and was widely respected for his genuine commitment to social causes, his sense of fair play, his tenacity and skill in political argument. He had suffered from lung cancer for the past two and a half years and was devastated by the death of his wife, Kakia, also from cancer, last September. His funeral, held yesterday in Athens with prime-ministerial honours, was attended by thousands.