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Media Watch 2004

08 January 2004
Source: Guardian
Author: Helena Smith
Comment: The following article appeared in the Guardian of London on 8 January 2004.
Greek PM calls early election

Simitis bows out as ruling party chief, making way for Papandreou to lift Socialists' poll hopes and become dynasty's third prime minister

The Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, last night prepared to assume the leadership of the ruling Socialist party - a step which could see him become the third member of his family in a century to become prime minister.

Announcing an early general election on March 7, the prime minister, Costas Simitis, made way for Mr Papandreou to take over by saying he was stepping down as president of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) and would hand over the party leadership before the poll.

"I will be prime minister until the day after elections," Mr Simitis said yesterday. "The new Pasok president will chair the new government (if it wins) immediately after the elections."

The announcement, made eight years after the reform-minded former Marxist assumed power, was unprecedented in postwar Greece.

It left the way clear for Mr Papandreou, whose father and grandfather were prime ministers, to ride to the rescue of Pasok. The party has been in power for all but three of the past 23 years, but currently trails the opposition conservative New Democracy party by eight points in opinion polls.

Increasingly, Greek voters have expressed dissatisfaction at spiralling prices and perceived corruption within the governing party. With unemployment at about 10%, many complain that their living standards have declined dramatically, even though the country enjoys Europe's highest level of economic growth.

Yesterday the 67-year-old Mr Simitis, who has overseen Greece's entry into the euro single currency and other modernising policies, said it was time to move on.

"This is a new era, and the new era for Pasok demands a younger generation that will take on the necessary responsibilities," he said in a nationally televised address. He is expected to formally nominate Mr Papandreou today as his successor at Pasok's helm.

The mild-mannered foreign minister, 51, is the oldest son of Andreas Papandreou, Pasok's three-times prime minister.

Elections would be brought forward, from May to March, to enable a new government to reach a settlement on Cyprus, Mr Simitis said. As one of the war-divided island's guarantor powers, along with Britain and Turkey, Athens is keen for the island's estranged Greek and Turkish communities to be reunited before Cyprus joins the EU on May 1.

The early poll comes five months ahead of the Athens summer Olympics.

Welcoming the news of Mr Simitis's departure, the Greek stock market hit a 19-month high. Political analysts said the snap ballot would ensure the least possible disruption for the Olympics' often problem-prone preparations.

The US-born Mr Papandreou is seen as the Socialists' best ticket to re-election. Open and innovative, he has continuously outshone his rivals by being voted Greece's most popular politician. While his progressive policies have been criticised by Pasok's old guard - and been markedly different from those of his father - the Swedish-educated politician has captivated Greeks with his "can-do" style. Younger voters praise him for backing such causes as the decriminalisation of cannabis usage.

Internationally, he is credited with almost single-handedly easing Greece's traditionally tense ties with Turkey and improving the country's previously battered standing in the Balkans."