Papandreou's death proves pure politics

In Greece, people had begun to wonder if Andreas Papandreou would ever die. After all, his lungs, kidneys and other vital organs had weathered the kind of battering that would have long ago finished off a thousand ordinary mortals.

He had confounded medical opinion by walking out of hospital and returning home after four months hooked up to life-support machines. He had even begun to hold political meetings again.

In the end, though, it was his heart that proved his final undoing, the troublesome heart that caused him to undergo a massive bypass operation in England eight years ago. In the early hours of yesterday, Mr Papandreou suffered a cardiac seizure at the grand suburban villa he had built with his glamorous wife Mimi, and despite attempts by his in-house team of medical experts to resuscitate him, he never regained consciousness. He was 77.

Mr Papandreou approached death the same way he had undertaken his long, bruising career in politics: fighting and scheming every inch of the way. "My only remaining ambition," he had been quoted as saying in January, when he was talked into standing down as prime minister because of his deteriorating health, "is to make life hell for my successor."

His successor turned out to be Costas Simitis, one of his most ardent critics within the ruling party, Pasok, and Mr Papandreou proved as good as his word.

Even before yesterday, the old man had been casting a disruptive shadow over a special party congress called to carve up the power he once wielded with undisputed authority. Even at this late stage, he had been opposing Mr Simitis tooth and nail; now his awkwardly timed death will loom large over congress proceedings this week.

Such uncanny abilities to influence public events will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the highs and lows of Mr Papandreou's astonishing career. Politics was everything to him, and the line between his public and private lives was virtually non-existent, as his catalogue of love affairs, personal scandals and medical traumas showed. In the closing stages of his life, he excelled even himself in his ability to turn his most intimate struggles into grand political theatre.

When he was first admitted to Athens' exclusive Onassis Clinic last November, he managed to focus the attention of the country on his bedside, bringing all normal political business to a grinding halt and transforming Greek public life into a giant medical soap opera. His wives, past and present, bickered and fought, his doctors squabbled about his prognosis, and his associates battled surreptitiously for his succession.

In January, when it became clear even to him that there was no point pretending he could still run the country, he provoked a massive showdown between the loyalists in his party, led by his faithful if unimaginative lieutenant, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, and the hardy band of dissident reformers led by Mr Simitis.

Mr Simitis emerged victorious from the first round of the battle, as the parliamentary party narrowly endorsed his internationalist, pro-European vision and chose him to take over as premier. But his government has had to operate in an atmosphere of warfare within Pasok as the issue of the party leadership has loomed.

Originally, the idea was that Mr Papandreou would stay on as party president, albeit in a mainly honorary capacity, leaving Mr Simitis and Mr Tsochadzopoulos to slug it out for the new post of vice-president. In theory, Mr Simitis should have been the clear favourite, since Pasok has little to gain from damaging splits between the government and the party leadership in a pre- election year.

But Pasok is not a rational party at the best of times, and the power struggle has caused the country to grind to another of its periodic halts. The Papandreou factor has been particularly pernicious: news of pro-Tsochadzopoulos politicians trouping off to their ailing mentor's villa for meetings may have boosted their cause, but it also turned the political climate to pure poison.

It is hard to predict the precise effect of Mr Papandreou's death. We can expect several days of emotional tributes to Greece's first left-wing premier and outpourings of grief. No doubt Mimi will play the distraught widow at Wednesday's funeral in Athens with the same melodramatic passion she brought to her previous roles in Mr Papandreou's life, first as his sexpot mistress and then as his devout and loving wife.

And then? Mr Tsochadzopoulos will hope the passing of a national icon can help his cause; Mr Simitis, meanwhile, will be praying that his old rival will not torment him from beyond the grave. Mr Papandreou may have passed on; the strength of the myth he left behind still remains to be tested.

Obituary, page 12