Nation waits as Papandreou weakens

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The anxious vigil surrounding Andreas Papandreou as he fights for his life in an Athens clinic turned grimly pessimistic yesterday as the Greek Prime Minister, who had seemed to be making steady progress following an attack of pneumonia, was on a respirator, and hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine for the second time in 12 hours.

Attention in every area of Greek public life turned exclusively towards the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Clinic, the state- of-the-art hospital where Mr Papandreou, 76, has been in intensive care for the past nine days. Yesterday he was put back on the artificial respirator which sustained him for most of last week, and the malfunction in his kidneys bodes ill for a man who was already extremely weak before his admission to hospital and has been unable to ingest solids since.

Although official bulletins continued to be upbeat, ministers and close aides who visited him yesterday emerged looking grave and refusing to comment. Hundreds of well-wishers joined crowds of reporters outside the clinic. Political analysts could only confirm what the prevailing atmosphere already unmistakably suggested: that whether he lives or dies, this must surely be the end of the long an distinctive Papandreou era.

It is a measure of the unique grip that the Prime Minister holds over Greek public life that from the moment he entered hospital the country effectively entered hospital with him. The government has all but ground to a halt, while television news has focused exhaustively on medical bulletins and on the hundreds of ministers, members of parliament, churchmen, business leaders and personal friends who have paid homage to a man who has dominated Greek life for the past 15 years.

Mr Papandreou's first-floor room in the Onassis clinic reflects the pattern of Greek politics over the last two years: an ailing old man dutifully attended around the clock by his young wife, Mimi, who in turn exercises strict control over who is allowed to see him.

The peculiar closeness of the private and public domains of Mr Papandreou's life has come all too conspicuously to the fore; thus his Health Minister, Dimitris Kremastinos, has taken up his secondary role as the Prime Minister's personal physician, directing a team of medical experts that has swelled to 17 doctors of international renown.

Magdi Yacoub, the British surgeon who performed a triple bypass on Mr Papandreou at Harefield Hospital, Cambridgeshire, in 1988, has been in constant touch and sent special medication to keep the Prime Minister's heart stable.

With news strictly regulated by the doctors and politicians in Mr Papandreou's immediate retinue, Greeks have been fed an extraordinary diet of rumours, wild stories and speculation about the true prospects for his recovery. Nobody believes anything they are told. Even the word of Mr Papandreou's doctors has been doubted, as they have been accused of trying to cash in on the crisis with television appearances to attract new private clients.

Tabloid newspapers, meanwhile, have recounted how holy oil has been flown in from the island of Tinos and rubbed over Mr Papandreou's body, and how his wife has placed golden Orthodox crosses on his chest. Mimi is known to have an interest in astrology, and fortune-tellers have been quoted warning that the last 10 days of November are particularly inauspicious in Mr Papandreou's star chart.

More seriously, the movers and shakers in Pasok, the Socialist party Mr Papandreou founded 21 years ago, have been quietly meeting behind the scenes to plan scenarios for the succession. Although little has been said openly, it now looks increasingly likely that Mr Papandreou will stand aside. The only question, political sources say, is whether the Prime Minister will recover sufficiently to make his own nomination for the leadership.

The party is split between a hard core of Papandreou loyalists, including the interior minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, and the Cabinet secretary, Antonis Livanis, and an increasingly vocal band of dissidents, led by two former ministers, Costas Simitis and Vasso Papandreou, who want to democratise the party and loosen Mimi's grip on the reins of power.

One possible compromise candidate is the Defence Minister, Gerasimos Arsenis, a technocrat with wide domestic and international experience. Although he lacks the charisma and aggressive temperament of such modern Greek political heroes as Constantine Karamanlis and Mr Papandreou, Mr Arsenis may be the only person to command the respect needed to hold Pasok together.

If Mr Papandreou dies or decides to stand down, it will be up to Pasok's parliamentary party to nominate a successor. It remains to be seen if they can do so without tearing each other apart.