Greeks recoil from the rise of Mimi

Papandreou's plan to instal his wife in parliament has angered his supporters. Andrew Gumbel reports from Athens
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WHEN Alan Bennett's play The Madness of King George III came to Athens a while back, it struck a strong chord with Greek audiences. The film version is about to take star billing at the forthcoming Britain in Greece festival. The story of a doddering patriarch propping up an old order on the brink of extinction appeals to Greeks: it sounds just like their own prime minister, Andreas Papandreou.

The founder of Pasok, the Greek socialist party, is reaching the end of the road. He is 77 and in poor health. Since returning to office two years ago, his government has been indecisive, at times verging on paralysis. His party is growing fractious.

Now, having weathered more scandals than even the Tories under John Major, he has pushed his luck one step further. He is campaigning to get his glamorous young wife into public office, to the outrage of many of his own supporters. It would be one thing if Dimitra, or "Mimi" as she is known to Greeks, were a career politician in her own right. But she is not. Before sweeping the ageing premier off his feet seven years ago, she was an air hostess with Olympic Airways. She has kept her husband going through heart surgery and a host of other ailments. Although she is clearly ambitious, she has never entirely convinced Greeks - admittedly an unprogressive lot when it comes to the promotion of women - that her talents extend beyond the physical.

Some have never forgiven Mr Papandreou for breaking up with his loyal American first wife Margaret to marry a woman 37 years his junior. Now they fear they are seeing the emergence of a would-be Eva Peron, as Mimi takes an ever more prominent role. She runs her husband's office, controlling access and perhaps also the flow of documents to the prime minister, to the irritation of Pasok old-timers. Mr Papandreou set the latest scandal in motion himself a few weeks ago when he announced that he would support any ambitions Mimi might have to run for parliament at the next general election in 1997.

The implication was that Mr Papandreou wanted Pasok to endorse her as a special personal favour. Mimi's job in the prime minister's office bars her, along with all civil servants, from seeking election for three- and-a-half years. The only way she could enter parliament would be as one of a dozen honorary deputies, selected from special lists put forward by the main parties. But these are supposed to be senior figures commanding wide respect, not relatives of the PM.

The outcry was immediate, with several Pasok deputies decrying a blatant piece of cronyism. But Mr Papandreou refused to be cowed by discontent in the ranks. When one Pasok MP, a former army general called Kyriakos Spyriounis, spoke out against Mimi's candidature in a radio interview, he was promptly suspended from the party.

Such behaviour inevitably prompted the question of what exactly Mimi's ambitions were: whether it was simply to enter parliament, or to take over Pasok outright. After all, she is hardly the only member of the Papandreou family entourage to be pushed into the limelight: Mr Papandreou's son is education minister, his personal doctor is health minister and Mimi's cousin is sports minister.

Pasok, however, simply would not stand for a takeover of the party. A more plausible reason for Mimi's sudden desire to enter parliament might be to secure immunity from criminal prosecution. All of Greece is asking questions about where the Papandreous found the money to build a sumptuous private villa outside Athens featuring 14 bathrooms, three swimming pools and a private chapel. The press has had a field-day with Mr Papandreou's claims that he raised the cash for the so-called "pink villa" through interest-free loans from friends.

Behind the theatricals lies a serious issue, that of Greece's attempted transition from inefficient Mediterranean backwater to mature member of the European Union. Mr Papandreou belongs to a generation of politicians to whom clientism and the cult of the leader come as second nature. Indeed, to judge by his miraculous comeback from the banking scandals of the late 1980s and the ensuing trial (at which he was acquitted), he seems to thrive on controversy and standing by seemingly indefensible positions.

Younger Pasok members want to modernise the Greek political system to the point where shameless wife-promotion is as unacceptable as it would be in northern Europe. A reformist wing has formed around former foreign minister Theodore Pangalos. Likewise, in the opposition New Democracy party, a number of prominent members have broken away from the leadership and are biding their time for an opportune moment to take over.

Voters are disillusioned with the status quo. Even if Mr Papandreou's precarious health holds out, the assumption is that he will step down in 1997. What happens then will depend on the outcome of the current struggle between traditionalists and reformers.