Greeks heading back to the future: Andreas Papandreou seems set to regain power in Sunday's poll, writes Leonard Doyle in Athens

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The Independent Online
CENTRAL Athens was a madhouse of rival demonstrations yesterday as enthusiasm for politics spilt on to the streets, and cavalcades of motorcycles and cars screeched up and down the city's broad avenues, horns blaring and flags waving. Weary of the abuse from foreign parts over policies towards Serbia and Macedonia and disenchanted by years of belt-tightening, Greek voters are headed back to the future. Opinion polls predict voters will dump the Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, 75, and replace him with another ageing and controversial, if charming, leader: Andreas Papandreou.

The election, on Sunday, should see the resurrection of Mr Papandreou, head of the Panhellenic Socialist Party (Pasok), something few could have predicted when he was ousted from power in 1989. The polls suggest that Mr Mitsotakis, the uninspiring leader of the conservative New Democracy party, will be sent packing after a period in power characterised by nepotism, cronyism, diplomatic blundering, a botched privatisation programme, a whiff of corruption and shenanigans that included eavesdropping on the opposition.

Mr Papandreou's supporters were scenting victory last night as they converged on the park in central Athens where he was making only a fourth and final appearance in a campaign in which he has been guided by his new young wife, Dimitra Liani. Mr Papandreou addressed an exuberant crowd of around half a million people, many waving the party's green and white flag, at what was said to be the largest Pasok rally in history.

Greek voters are unhappy with both leading candidates according to John Loulis, a pollster and columnist for the daily Kathimerini. He says that the campaign has been the dirtiest in living memory, 'distinguished by American- style negative campaigning and mud-slinging'. Mr Loulis added: 'Both are disliked, but Pasok has a better image all round and will win as best we can tell.'

A third protest party, Political Spring, led by the nationalist firebrand and former foreign minister Antonis Samaras, has failed to catch voters' imaginations, although it could still take 5 per cent.

Mr Papandreou's return is viewed with trepidation by Greece's European Community partners. Despite his considerable charisma, he is best recalled for consorting with Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and mismanaging the Greek economy during his seven years in power from 1981.

In Greece, Mr Papandreou's return is expected to bring with it uncertainty, at a time when the country's importance to the West is decreasing and its EC partners are starting to count the cost of maintaining its high spending habits.

Causing yet more nervousness among Greece's Community partners and paymasters is the realisation that Mr Papandreou will have barely settled behind the Prime Minister's desk in Syntagma Square when the time comes for Greece to take its turn at the six-month EC presidency on 1 January. He is seen as a loose cannon by many in the EC and his frailty (he is 74 and has a heart ailment) will leave him little stamina for rounds of EC policy negotiations nor for chairing next year's summit meeting in Corfu.

Greek voters could not care less what the world thinks of their choice of leader or what implications it might have on regional politics, which may still drag Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria into a Balkan war over the spoils of the former Yugoslavia. Though virulently nationalistic over the Macedonian question, the Greeks seem most concerned with maintaining their borders if war spreads to Kosovo or there is a scramble for territory in Yugoslav Macedonia by its neighbours.

The Macedonian question has been dragged into the campaign in the last few days with Mr Mitsotakis calling Mr Papandreou an 'irresponsible warmonger' for his policies. Mr Papandreou has said Greece will never recognise Macedonia by name.

Greek commentators and foreign diplomats say it is impossible to foretell how Mr Papandreou will behave on touchstone issues like finding a name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and restraining the Greek security services from harassing citizens who have queried Greece's Balkan policy.

Greece's partners also want the next prime minister to keep administering the bitter medicine prescribed under the Maastricht treaty. Mr Papandreou has undertaken to do this but some view these promises with a degree of scepticism, given his record.

(Table and map omitted)

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