Tuesday, 14 August 2001
The Greek Prime Minister, Mr Costas Simitis, is spending his holidays this week in the Aegean on the western Cycladic island of Sifnos, 76 miles south of Athens. In Classical times, Sifnos enjoyed great wealth, derived from its gold and silver mines, and its treasury was dedicated to Apollo at Delphi. Today, Sifniots claim, the island has 365 churches and chapels, one for each day of the year.
However, Mr Simitis is unlikely to find much time to relax among the 365 churches of Sifnos or to enjoy the island’s great festival tomorrow, the feast of the Panagia or Virgin Mary, which comes only second to Easter for its great festivities and celebrations.
Instead, he will be considering how to fight his latest slump in the opinion polls, concentrating on a speech in which he is expected to outline his plans to keep his economic and public sector reforms on track, and contemplating the potential challenges within his own centre-left party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok).
Pasok has been in office for all but three of the past 20 years, but dissatisfaction is running high. Last month, for the first time, Mr Simitis’s rating sank below 30 per cent, his lowest ever, and for the first time he polled below Mr Costas Karamanlis, the untested leader of the main opposition party, New Democracy.
As he sees his popularity being eroded, Mr Simitis is now expected to announce a series of anti-poverty measures, along with tax cuts and increased public spending, in a major speech in Thessaloniki next month.
Greeks had hoped that joining the EMU last January would mean greater prosperity and a better standard of living.
The Prime Minister’s supporters point out that in the past few years Mr Simitis has achieved low inflation, faster growth than the EU average and an acceptably low budget deficit.
But his opponents point out that hopes for 5 per cent growth this year have been scaled back, the ailing stock market has hit a three-year low, and consumer inflation is running at 3.9 per cent, with persistent dry weather making fruit and vegetables expensive.
In Thessaloniki, Mr Simitis may want to make the most of the Olympic Games taking place in Athens in 2004, promising that all Greeks and not just Athenians will reap benefits.
But for most Greeks taxes remain high, paying them is time-consuming and complicated, and the poll figures reflect the belief of many that they have seen little change in a daily struggle with bureaucracy and public services.
The Prime Minister’s closest political adviser, the Environment Minister, Mr Costas Laliotis, conceded: “We must not close our eyes and ears to the messages incorporated in the polls.”
Elections are some time away, but Mr Simitis is facing growing criticism within Pasok, the party founded by the late Andreas Papandreou.
The Prime Minister has warned that he will not sacrifice policies for the sake of popularity. But heated street protests led by the public sector unions – his power-base in Pasok – forced him to shelve plans to overhaul the state pension scheme.
Now he has brought the party congress forward by six months to October in the hope of reaffirming his leadership before launching a much-needed cabinet shuffle. A cabinet shuffle is particularly popular among Pasok voters (69.3 per cent), and ministers whose proposals have caused a public uproar recently are expected to go. Although Mr Simitis is standing for re-election as party leader, one of his principal rivals inside the cabinet, the ageing Defence Minister, Mr Akis Tsohatzopoulos, who leads the party’s old-fashioned tax-and-spend populists, may see this as his last opportunity to become party leader and prime minister.
The Defence Minister, angered by a trimmed defence budget and a decision to postpone buying new fighter jets, has never been reticent about his ambitions. Having suffered two previous defeats at the hands of Mr Simitis, Mr Tsohatzopoulos could see the party congress in October as his last chance for revenge.
Mr Simitis, for his part, must win and win convincingly if he can hope to keep the populists silent as he forges ahead with reforms.
If he fails to win convincingly, then the best-qualified alternative is his Foreign Minister, Mr George Papandreou.
Mr Papandreou would have a better chance than most to unite Pasok’s two main factions: the populists loyal to Mr Tsohatzopoulos who still invoke his father’s memory, and the pro-euro modernisers.
A few weeks ago, on the fifth anniversary of Andreas Papandreou’s death, the Foreign Minister danced a zeibekiko to his father’s favourite tune – Vassilis Tsitsanis’s Cloudy Sunday – on the island of Samos.
As he staggered and swirled in the solitary dance, those who watched and clapped included the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem.
Tradition and the Turkish presence underlined Mr Papandreou’s desire to bridge the gap between populists and reformers.
But if the steps of the zeibekiko were a hint that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as prime minister, Mr Papandreou has told friends and allies within Pasok he is prepared to wait.
He believes he has plenty of time to make his bid for the party leadership in the future.
This news feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 14 August 2001