New Greek leader a friend to EU

After Papandreou: Socialist MPs choose low-key reformer to succeed tough-talking nationalist
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The Independent Online
ANDREW GUMBEL

Athens

Greece's ruling party last night chose its leading dissident, Costas Simitis, as the country's new Prime Minister, signalling a major shift away from the charismatic populism of his predecessor, Andreas Papandreou, in favour of reform and closer co-operation with the European Union.

Mr Simitis, a 59-year-old economist and commercial lawyer with broad experience of government, beat off challenges from two Papandreou loyalists, the party apparatchik Akis Tsochadzopoulos and Defence Minister Gerassimos Arsenis, in a tense two-round ballot of Pasok's parliamentary party.

Despite being frozen out of the government and the Pasok leadership for the past four months, Mr Simitis was the most popular of the three candidates and commanded the most international respect. He is widely seen as the man most likely to lead Pasok to victory at the general elections slated for October 1997.

"Our country should become a substantive contributor to European developments, play a role in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean and create bonds of co-operation that will contribute to our development," Mr Simitis said in his hustings speech to Pasok's central committee earlier this week.

This was a far cry from the rhetoric of Mr Papandreou, who until his illness and incapacitation last November held up EU development funds, created an international furore by delaying recognition of Macedonia, and seemed bent on upholding Greece's place in the world by turning his nose up at anyone who disagreed with him.

Political sources say Mr Simitis is likely to invite his leading dissident friends, the so-called "Gang of Four", back into government, appointing the fiery former European Affairs minister, Theodore Pangalos, to the Foreign Ministry and bringing the former European Commissioner, Vasso Papandreou, into his economic team.

Mr Simitis would also like to transform Pasok from a populist movement into a mainstream centre-left party, along the lines of Tony Blair's Labour Party. This may prove more difficult, however, as the party leadership remains nominally in Mr Papandreou's hands and elections for a new party leader are not expected until June.

Mr Simitis will fight hard to appoint one of his loyalists to the deputy leadership in the meantime. If he fails, he will have to temper his reformist instincts to avoid splitting the party. A serious rift does not look likely, however, since all sides know that Pasok's best chance is to stay united.

Mr Simitis had been favourite to win the contest from the outset, but faced a far rougher ride than expected from Mr Tsochadzopoulos, who garnered considerable support following Mr Papandreou's resignation on Monday night.

Thanks to last-minute campaigning by his close colleague, the Cabinet Secretary, Antonis Livanis, Mr Tsochadzopoulos was level-pegging with Mr Simitis on the first ballot with 53 votes, followed by Mr Arsenis on 50 and a fourth candidate, Yannis Charalambopoulos, on 11. On the second ballot, however, Mr Simitis beat his rival by 86 votes to 75.

The atmosphere among Papandreou loyalists last night was one of rats leaving a sinking ship. The career of Mr Livanis, who has virtually run the country during the past two years as Mr Papandreou's health has failed, is almost certainly over. More junior acolytes, however, were quick to switch allegiances, among them Elisabeth Papazoi, a close adviser of Mr Papandreou's wife Dimitra.

Dimitra will almost certainly be the biggest loser. She will lose her job as head of the Prime Minister's private office and can abandon all ambitions to enter parliament for Pasok.

Mr Simitis's victory is not likely to cheer Mr Papandreou either. The two had not spoken since Mr Simitis was fired as industry minister last September. "According to members of his entourage," a European diplomat reported, "Mr Papandreou's only remaining wish is to live long enough to make life hell for his successor."

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