Power struggle in Athens

Greek newspapers with headlines and prime minister George Papandreou on the front pages on November 04, 2011 in Athens, Greece. Greece stands on the brink of economical collapse as political disagreements continue concerning the financial aid package proposed by EU.
Vladimir Rys

ATHENS – Prime Minister George Papandreou, battling to survive a confidence vote Friday, is under pressure from within and outside his party to step down.

Besides Papandreou, here’s a look at other key actors in the Greek drama, including possible successors, like opposition leader Antonis Samaras, who on Thursday called for Papandreou to resign.

Samaras, 60, and Papandreou, 59, are actually old friends. They attended Amherst College together in the early 1970s. Consensus was easier back then: they both opposed the military junta that ruled Greece.

The son of a cardiologist, Samaras is a Harvard-trained economist who entered politics shortly after returning to Greece in the late 70s. He’s currently head of the center-right New Democracy party.

A recent poll conducted for the independent Kathimerini newspaper showed New Democracy favored by 31.5 percent of those surveyed, compared to 22 percent for Papandreou’s socialist PASOK party.

“He’s very methodical, very studious,” said Petros Doukas, a former deputy finance minister and New Democracy supporter. “He would do a very good job trying to fix things up. He will do his utmost to keep Greece on its European course.”

Samaras is considered more of a populist than Papandreou and has a nationalist streak. In the early 1990s, he was critical of New Democracy for not taking a tougher stance with its northern neighbor over the use of the name “Macedonia.” That’s also the name of a region of Greece. The country is now known as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Samaras formed his own party after the Macedonia dustup but later returned to New Democracy and became its leader two years ago. In the current debt dispute, he has called for a snap election to take place next month, but Papandreou is resisting.

At stake is Greece’s future in the euro. Samaras initially opposed the negotiated $180 billion bailout, which includes a 50-percent writedown of Greek debt held by private investors.

But he reversed course Thursday, saying he’ll support it for fear that it’s the only way to avoid bankruptcy and remain in the euro. That support appears to be conditional on Papandreou’s resignation and the snap elections, however.

Samaras opposes the conditions imposed by international lenders. Greeks have seen tax hikes, salary and pension reductions and soon-to-be job losses. But unemployment continues to rise and the economy is shrinking – by 5.5 percent this year.

The opposition leader, who strongly favors tax cuts as a way to stimulate growth, indicated he would try to renegotiate portions of the bailout if he were in charge.

“No harm in trying to fix and fine tune the agreements,” said Doukas, who also reminded that European lenders and the International Monetary Fund aren’t interested in renegotiating.

The other key player is Evangelos Venizelos, Papandreou’s finance minister and deputy prime minister who was briefly hospitalized with stomach pain this week. He left his bed to fly with Papandreou to Cannes after the bombshell referendum announcement.

If Papandreou loses the confidence vote, Venizelos likely would be elevated to seek a coalition government. It’s less likely that he would lead the coalition, however, as Samaras would prefer a non-political technocrat, leading into a new election.

And if they can't form a coalition, there likely would be new elections, which favors Samaras.

The 54-year-old Venizelos once helped save a Papandreou, and he may have helped sink one by breaking ranks Thursday.

Venizelos, a constitutional law professor, successfully defended then-prime minister Andreas Papandreou – the late father of the current prime minister – of corruption charges in the late 1980s.

A few years later, he was elected to parliament representing Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. He has held a variety of ministries in PASOK governments.

A recent article in Germany’s Spiegel news magazine described him as “The Bull of Athens,” because Venizelos has often delivered bad news to austerity-weary Greeks about yet more initiatives.

Venizelos challenged Papandreou for the PASOK party leadership in November 2007, but Papandreou received 56 percent of the vote and went on to become prime minister in October 2009.

On Thursday morning, Venizelos broke ranks and announced he opposed Papandreou’s plan for a referendum on the European bailout, which in effect would have been a referendum on staying in the euro.

Papandreou then backtracked and scrapped the referendum plan.

But Vassilis Monastiriotis, senior lecturer on southeastern European politics at the London School of Economics, thought Venizelos would have taken the next step.

“I was expecting a move by Venizelos to undermine Papandreou,” Monastiriotis said. “He could have tried to unify them and say ‘we don’t need elections, let’s change leadership.’ He hasn’t done that.”

The longer Venizelos waits, “the less of a player he becomes,” he said.

Monastiriotis said the failed challenge to Papandreou’s leadership in 2007 might be weighing on Venizelos.

“Since then he has become less of a risk-taker,” he said. “Had that not happened, he would have made his move this time around.”

Other PASOK players to watch, according to observers, are Health Minister Andreas Loverdos and Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou.

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