Papandreou's heirs wait on dying words

ANDREW GUMBEL

Athens

As Andreas Papandreou lies hooked up to lung and kidney support systems in an Athens hospital and the undeclared battle for his succession rages, one thought is haunting his would-be political heirs.

What if he ruins all the backroom negotiations and, in his dying breath, names his own successor as Prime Minister and leader of his socialist movement, Pasok? Even worse, what if the name he comes up with pleases nobody but himself and the man - or woman - that he designates?

One nightmare scenario, though admittedly an unlikely one, is that he will plump for Mimi, his glamorous but broadly disliked young wife who has jealously guarded over his private office for the past two years and who has been watching over him day and night since he entered hospital 12 days ago. One senior Pasok member was clear: "You never know the whims of a dying man. But if he does that, we'll all pretend not to hear."

Mr Papandreou would not have to go so far, though, to sow the seeds of discord in party ranks. A name like Akis Tsochadzopoulos, his loyal Interior Minister and official stand-in as prime minister, would also go down badly with many militants, who see him as a bully-boy, and would risk exacerbating the rifts that already exist between pro- and anti-Papandreou camps within Pasok.

Officially, government members insist Mr Papandreou is still in charge, even though he can communicate only through facial gestures and handwriting. "Last time I saw him communicating, three days ago, he wrote the words: 'I will survive'," Telemachos Chytiris, the government spokesman, said.

However, the latest thinking is that the roles of prime minister and party leader might be divided, with either Gerasimos Arsenis, the Defence Minister, or Costas Simitis, a leading Pasok dissident, taking the premiership, and Mr Tsochadz-opoulos controlling the party. Mr Arsenis and Mr Simitis are economic specialists with a broadly pro-European outlook.

Time may be running out, since Mr Papandreou's doctors have been unable to take him off the artificial respirator that sustained him for most of last week and has done so again since Tuesday. Mr Papandreou also underwent a fourth course of kidney dialysis yesterday.

There is now talk of transferring the Prime Minister on to a more powerful heart-lung machine, or even of performing a tracheotomy to enable him to breathe independently through an opening in his throat. Neither prospect is reassuring for a frail 76-year-old with a history of serious heart problems.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Athens, the mood is turning to one of discomfort at Mr Papandreou's agony. "Why do they torture him like this? They should turn the machines off and let him die with dignity," one shopkeeper said.

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