Greece: Former finance minister key to gov't talks

By Christopher Torchia

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 9:39 a.m. MDT

ATHENS, Greece — Evangelos Venizelos has worn many hats during the Greek crisis: point man in international bailout talks, inheritor of a once-dominant political force whose popularity crumbled under austerity, and now, possibly, kingmaker in arduous post-election efforts to form a ruling coalition.

That last role makes Venizelos a critical figure in the debate about whether Greece can generate enough political and economic stability to stay in Europe's currency union, reassure international creditors and stave off spillover effects that undercut major economies around the world.

The socialist PASOK party led by Venizelos, a 55-year-old constitutional law expert, may be in sharp decline, but it stands at the center of urgent talks on forming a new government after Sunday's vote.

"What's really important at this time is to expedite the process because we have to send abroad a message of stability and credibility about the country, and send to the Greek people a message of security and of positive prospects because the Greek people have to start smiling again," said Venizelos, whose party is seen as a bridge between the election victor, New Democracy, and another possible coalition partner, Democratic Left.

Antonis Samaras, head of the conservative New Democracy, is courting both smaller parties because he needs to form an alliance in order to govern. A deal with Venizelos alone would give Samaras the necessary support, but he seeks a broader coalition to boost the credibility of any mandate.

However, the statesmanlike talk from Venizelos belies the fluid, complex nature of Greek politics, overseen for decades by the dueling PASOK and New Democracy parties, now reviled by many Greeks for supporting the bailout deal that required wage cuts and other tough measures in exchange for billions of dollars in funding. Greek parties failed to form a coalition after an inconclusive election on May 6, though this time around, the stakes for Greece, and the global economy, appear even higher. And there is a greater sense of urgency about the need to compromise.

The heavyset Venizelos, a distinctive presence on the political scene who is known for his keen intelligence, forceful delivery in speeches and occasional loss of temper, was a challenger within the PASOK party to former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who resigned in 2011 as Greece sank deeper into crisis and the leadership plummeted in popularity. As an overseer of some of the arrangements with foreign creditors that enraged Greeks, Venizelos was reviled by many people who saw him as a symbol of political corruption and callousness.

In the May election, he was heckled on his way to a polling station by residents in nearby apartment buildings. Some shouted: "Thieves out!"

Venizelos fumed on a television talk show in the run-up to the vote on Sunday when a man in the audience questioned him about alleged bribes paid by German industrial giant Siemens AG to secure major telecoms and security contracts before the 2004 Athens Olympics. He said the questioner was acting on behalf of the Syriza, the anti-bailout, radical left group that siphoned support from PASOK, came second in the vote and refuses to join a coalition.

"You come and govern," Venizelos shouted at the questioner. "You think that this is some kind of enjoyment for anyone to be in government and to do this job?"

Venizelos, who has not been implicated in the scandal, played a lead role as culture minister in preparations for the Athens Olympics, which ended up costing far more than initially thought.

He earned his first cabinet post as government spokesman at age 36 and has headed various ministries in past Socialist administrations. Venizelos has struggled to rejuvenate his party that is seen by many Greeks as a symptom of what is wrong with Greece's political class.

During the election campaign this month, Venizelos tweeted: "Our party cadres can't be my age or older than me," an apparent call for new blood in the party ranks.

He noted that he was 30 years old when he served in the government in the 1990s under Andreas Papandreou, a former prime minister and the father of George Papandreou. Many disgruntled Greeks think such a long association with the traditional power establishment should not be a source of pride.

Associated Press writer Menelaos Hadjicostis contributed.

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