Relief as race to succeed Papandreou starts

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The Independent Online
ANDREW GUMBEL

Greece's ruling party geared up yesterday for a lightning campaign to elect a new prime minister by the end of the week, following the long- awaited resignation of Andreas Papandreou from his bed in an intensive care unit in an Athens hospital.

The leading anti-Papandreou dissident in the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), the former industry minister Costas Simitis, and the man likely to be his chief rival, the Defence Minister Gerasimos Arsenis, both formally announced their candidature for a race whichmust take place within three days. A former defence minister, Yannis Charalambopoulos, also joined the list.

The party's executive committee will meet today to thrash out the exact timing and the rules for the contest.

The news that Mr Papandreou had bowed to the inevitable and agreed to step down was greeted with relief in political and business circles. The country has all but ground to a halt since mid-November, when the 76-year- old premier, already ailing, was first admitted to hospital with lung and kidney failure.

Pasok officials looked anxious to get the succession race out of the way as quickly as possible to avoid splits within the party. The Athens stock market index, meanwhile, jumped up two percentage points on the day.

For a long time, no one had dared believe that Mr Papandreou would ever relinquish his hold on the government and on the socialist movement which he founded following the collapse of the colonels' junta in 1974. Although he was barely able to move or speak, suggestions that his career was over were at first considered taboo. But as the prospects for his recovery waned, and Greece's international credibility was increasingly compromised, the party finally plucked up the courage to present Mr Papandreou with the hard truth of the situation.

Originally, it seemed that President Costas Stephanopoulos would see Mr Papandreou in his room at the Onassis Clinic. But on Monday afternoon, a group of senior ministers, accompanied by two of Mr Papandreou's children and his controversial but devoted young wife Dimitra, obtained his signature to a short statement.

The word "resignation" did not feature, but Mr Papandreou made clear he did not want his declining health to hold the whole country hostage and urged Pasok to pick a successor quickly. According to some reports, he reflected long and hard before signing.

Whoever succeeds him will be unable to wield his unique and autocratic powers, if only because there was no mention in the letter of Mr Papandreou's other job as leader of Pasok. According to party sources, he will stay on as president, at least in name, and a separate election will be held in due course to appoint a deputy.

Mr Simitis, a 59-year-old commercial lawyer educated in Germany and at the London School of Economics, is the most likely candidate to win the premiership because he stands the best chance of leading Pasok to victory in the next general elections.

Not only does he have a reputation as an intelligent reformer, but as a relatively centrist member of Pasok he stands the best chance of wooing voters away from the conservative opposition party, New Democracy.

His status as a dissident within Pasok may not harm him if it is understood that a Papandreou loyalist, such as the Interior Minister, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, would become the party number two. Mr Tsochadzopoulos is likely to put himself forward for the premiership too, as is the parliamentary speaker, Apostolos Kaklamanis.

Since Pasok has never had to hold a leadership election of any kind before, the executive committee will have to decide how many ballots to hold. The most rational solution would be a run-off second round between the two front-runners, but rivalries within the party could drag the process out for longer.

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