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Papandreou Fiddles While PASOK Disintegrates

Former Prime Minister and soon-to-be former PASOK leader George Papandreou

ATHENS – While former Prime Minister George Papandreou was in Costa Rica addressing the Socialist International conference as its leader, the PASOK party he still heads – if only for a while and under constant pressure to quit – and which his father, the late former Premier Andreas Papandreou formed in 1981, is vanishing. Less than three months after he resigned in the wake of 18 months of protests, strikes and riots against austerity measures he implemented to suit demands of international lenders providing rescue loans for the country’s disappearing economy, PASOK has gone from ruling the country to fifth place in a new poll, even behind the marginal Communist party, not a good omen as the party hopes to reclaim the premier’s office when new elections are held to replace a coalition government formed when he quit as the country’s leader.

PASOK has fallen to only 12 percent support, a six percent drop from December, according to a monthly research poll conducted by VPRC for Epikaira magazine. New Democracy, the party that fell out of power in 2009 to Papandreou before it was revealed it had lied about the country’s economy, is at 30.5 percent, virtually the same as the previous month, but far from enough to control the Parliament even if it gains the Prime Minister’s office, setting up a scenario in which there would have to be another coalition government or in which it would have to call yet another snap election in hopes of gaining a majority. That possibility seems remote given that more than one-third of Greeks said they are disgusted with all political parties and will not vote anymore.

The Communist Party of Greece and the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, would each receive 12.5 percent of the vote if elections were held tomorrow. Both Syriza and the Communist Party declined to join the interim government, but the far Right-Wing LAOS party, which collaborated with PASOK and New Democracy to be involved in the coalition, is now lagging far behind with only 6 percent of the vote. The level of contempt has risen markedly, as interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank (ECB) Vice-President, has gone from 75 percent support to 8 percent, while 80 percent of Greeks said the country is headed for disaster.

The troubles for Papandreou and PASOK mounted this week when even its own spokesman voted against measures before Parliament to open Greece’s notoriously closed professions which enjoy monopolies and set prices and profits. The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-ECB had demanded competition be allowed in professions as one of the conditions of providing Greece with a $152 billion rescue package, and a second pending $169 bailout that is being delayed until a deal is worked out with investors, in which they could take as much as 70 percent in losses.

More than 40 PASOK MPs voted against the reform measures they had always supported when the party was ruling, but the polls show their change of heart has come too late to save them or PASOK. The other seven articles of the bill were voted through on principle, paving the way for new tax laws for self-employed professionals, the liberalization of truckers’ and lawyers’ sectors, further cutbacks to the holiday bonuses of pensioners aged over 60, the establishment of a fund to oversee the selloff of state assets, and the abolition or merger of various state bodies.

When Papandreou was in power, he removed deputies from the party if they didn’t vote the way he ordered, but did not act against the open rebellion even as he said he wants to remain the party’s leader until the next elections, which means PASOK might not be even able to field a candidate unless it picks a nominee for Prime Minister who is not the party’s leader, adding to the growing confusion.

Just who would be the party’s leader is even more vexing as the reform measures were introduced by Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who imposed avalanches of tax hikes and pay cuts on Greeks and now is being spurned even within his own party. Another likely candidate for leadership,  Development Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, became the object of derision when he admitted he hadn’t even read the memorandum of understanding with the Troika when he supported it, even as he has since blasted Papandreou for pushing the package. Chrysochoidis supported the austerity measures even after he said he found out what they were and didn’t criticize Papandreou until the party lost power. A popular T-shirt in Greece makes fun of Chrysochoidis. It reads, “I Didn’t Read the Memorandum,” making him and the party a laughingstock in the eyes of many Greeks.

With the dismantling of the Socialist principles on which the party was founded, and the sense that the party handed over the keys to Greece to the Troika even while most analysts agreed with Papandreou that the country’s bloated public sector was a major reason for the staggering $460 billion debt – even though PASOK and New Democracy created it with generations of packing public payrolls with political hires in return for votes – it now seems PASOK, like Greece, cannot recover.

The newspaper Kathimerini reported that some within the party are debating the option of removing Papandreou from his role as party president before the leadership election due to take place in late March or early April, and in which party members across the country are set to vote. This could be done by MPs calling for a vote of confidence among the party’s parliamentary group. If Papandreou fails to secure the majority of support, he would have to stand down and lawmakers could elect a new leader.

PAPANDREOU AS NERO

“The country is entering its most crucial phase but at PASOK, we are fiddling,” said former Justice Minister Haris Kastanidis, who admitted that Papandreou was not fulfilling his role properly. “I do not know if we will get to the next elections as a united PASOK,” said Deputy Interior Minister Paris Koukoulopoulos. In a further sign of rifts at the highest level of the party, Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis and Health Minister Andreas Loverdos made barbed comments about the stance taken by Chrysochoidis, who has also been critical of PASOK’s policies while in government.

Papandreou is also waiting to see if Parliament will be asked to investigate whether he should face charges in connection to allegations that Greece’s 2009 deficit figure was artificially inflated. PASOK spokesman Panos Beglitis, who is a close ally of Papandreou, suggested that any parliamentary probe into fiscal data should stretch back to 2000, when another Socialist, Costas Simitis, was in power. Simitis recently blasted Papandreou’s tenure, another sign the party is now in open rebellion and Papandreou is powerless to stop it.

The Troika has said unless all members of the coalition government support the terms of the bailouts, including more of the austerity measures that doomed PASOK, Greece might not get more money, without which the country couldn’t pay its workers and pensioners and could slide into a disorderly default, then be forced to leave the Eurozone of countries using the euro as a currency. An editorial in Kathimerini said that could lead to more violence and “bloodshed in the streets.”

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who would be Prime Minister if his party wins the elections – but not control the Parliament – is balking at supporting more austerity measures. But unless he does, Greece will go bankrupt, leaving him with a bereft country, creating a conundrum for him.  Samaras has presented a contradiction,  however, saying he supports the coalition but not all of its policies. He said he wants elections no later than Palm Sunday, April 8, but talks on a write-down of Greek debt with investors have stalled for weeks, and the Troika said no more money will be released until there is a disagreement. Papademos has made no headway in reaching a deal even as the rival parties in his coalition continue to bicker amongst themselves and jockey for a position in the next election.

(Sources: Kathimerini, Bloomberg, Reuters)

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