Once popular Greek PM struggling to reconnect

November 13, 2008

By Dina Kyriakidou

Once the most popular politician in Greece, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis
has seen his ratings decline, hit by a wave of scandals, party rebels and the world economic crisis.

As little as a year ago, he managed to turn his political fortunes around, winning elections after deadly forest fires, a feat admired by friends and foes alike.

His razor thin majority forebode political trouble ahead. But since September
he has suffered several major blows – losing two ministers suspected of
wrongful dealings, having to sack rebel deputies and dealing with a flurry
of protests over his handling of the economy.

“Lately, Mr Karamanlis appears to be losing power and takes no initiative to act. The political hegemony he has enjoyed since 2004, is now directly
challenged,” wrote commentator Antonis Karakousis in the major Athens daily Ta Nea.  “The government appears to be at the mercy of events.”

Foreign diplomats in Athens say Karamanlis must act quickly to end feuds among his top ministers and take charge of his party before more damage is done. “I have seen him do none of that,” one European ambassador said.

Karamanlis’s style of the serious, somewhat laconic and removed leader has
served him well so far but may not be what’s needed when his voters are
facing a harsh economic reality and the socialist opposition is for the
first time in years ahead in opinion polls, political analysts say.

Although still seen as a better leader than his rival, Socialist party leader
George Papandreou, a recent poll showed 62 percent of those asked said their opinion of Karamanlis had worsened.

A wave of scandals has tarnished his image as the man who came in to fight
corruption and even deputies from his ruling New Democracy party have accused his
ministers of being insensitive to people’s hardships.

In September he publicly backed two ministers suspected of wrongdoing –
including his closest aide Theodoros Roussopoulos – but was forced to accept their resignations soon after, bowing to political pressure.

When party rebel Petros Tatoulis ignored warnings to keep quiet he was expelled from the party last week, bringing the New Democracy deputies down to 151 in the 300-seat house.

“The prime minister is in a personal and political dead end. But he has no right to lead the country to a dead end as well,” Tatoulis wrote on his blog  the sacking.

This was a far cry from the admiration Karamanlis had long enjoyed, mainly
for turning the economy around. With the world economic downturn reaching Greece and his finance minister criticised for a series of misfires, that advantage appears to be slipping.

It would take just one more party rebel to bring the government down and polls indicate no party can rule alone if elections were held now – an ominous prospect for Greece during a world crisis.

So far, Karamanlis has made few appearances and spoken little on what most Greeks want to hear most – measures to relieve economic hardship. Political observers say they are keen to see whether he will overcome his own political instincts to wait things out, take the centre stage and act before he is forced to new elections.

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