Three days after the frail and ageing Andreas Papandreou was rushed to hospital to be treated for pneumonia, doctors and close confidants said yesterday they were cautiously optimistic that he would pull through even though he was still in intensive care and struggling to wean himself off an artificial respirator.
With the whole country anxiously following the Prime Minister's progress, every kind of rumour has swirled around Athens about the state of his health and the possible political consequences of his incapacitation or demise. But yesterday his aides were busy discussing contingency plans for nothing more serious than a long convalescence.
"I would bet that the old lion will make it," said a senior member of Mr Papandreou's entourage.
Official bulletins, although short on hard information, registered a steady improvement in the 76-year-old premier's condition, and officials at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Centre said they thought the Prime Minister could be off the respirator and back home within a week or 10 days.
Even if he does pull through, however, Mr Papandreou's political future looks to be in grave doubt. Even before this latest emergency, he was so frail he could not work for more than a few hours a day and avoided all but the most important public functions. He underwent a triple heart bypass operation in 1988, and since then has grown ever more wizened and slow. Ten days ago at a parliamentary meeting of his party Pasok, he barely had the strength to turn the pages of his speech.
Such is the power of Mr Papandreou's personality and the autocratic nature of his leadership that pressure for him to step down, or at least make provision for his succession, was for a long time articulated only by a handful of senior party dissidents too prominent to risk serious punishment.
Over the past two months, however, much of Pasok has been in open revolt over the Prime Minister's refusal to face up to his own physical frailty, and over the increasingly prominent political role played by his wife, Mimi. Before his hospitalisation, a powerful group of dissidents led by former ministers Vasso Papandreou, Theodoros Pangalos and Costas Simitis appeared to be making rapid progress in their campaign to democratise Pasok.
That campaign is on ice. Mr Papandreou is a national hero and for now he is above criticism. When the leading dissidents visited Mr Papandreou at his bedside on Monday night they were jeered by a crowd of well-wishers standing outside the hospital. None of them has uttered as a word in public since.
The government, meanwhile, remains in the hands of Mr Papandreou's inner circle. Aides insist that the Prime Minister is still in charge even though he has a tube down his throat and can only communicate through hand gestures and writing. It is more likely that the crisis is being managed by two close colleagues: Akis Tsochadzopoulos, the Interior Minister, who is the constitutional deputy for the premier, and Antonis Livanis, Mr Papandreou's Cabinet secretary, who has ministerial rank and carries responsibility for the secret services.
The position of Mr Livanis, who is also close to Mrs Papandreou, is particularly crucial because he has the power to convene the Cabinet at any time. Meanwhile the Foreign Minister, Karolos Papoulias, is expected to represent Greece at a meeting of Mediterranean leaders in Barcelona next month, and President Costis Stephanopoulos will probably attend the EU summit in Madrid.
The loyalists will no doubt keep the dissidents in check as long as Mr Papandreou is convalescing. But their grip is unlikely to last forever. If Mr Papandreou makes a full recovery, he can expect to face his critics all over again. If he remains too weak to carry on or dies, the struggle for succession will be more emotionally charged but no less vicious.