WORLD

A new Eva Peron?

Athens’ controversial first lady bids for power

LOUISE BRANSON October 23 1995
WORLD

A new Eva Peron?

Athens’ controversial first lady bids for power

LOUISE BRANSON October 23 1995

A new Eva Peron?

WORLD

GREECE

Athens’ controversial first lady bids for power

It is part Pygmalion, part Peyton Place and perhaps at heart a love story. The ambitious and glamorous first lady of Greek politics, whose main qualification seems to be her devoted support for 76-year-old Premier Andreas Papandreou, is now orchestrating her own entry into parliament. Already labelled the Eva Perón of Greece, Dimitra Liani —known as Mimi—is viewed more as a scheming Lady Macbeth by a growing number of Papandreou’s party colleagues. Five have quit their posts and started a new political faction, angrily claiming that the ailing leader is favoring his 40-year-old spouse over party stalwarts in line for succession. Gossip turned to outright scandal this summer when an Athens tabloid began to run topless photos of the former Olympic Airways hostess just as she was successfully transforming her image from party-loving socialite to devout Greek Orthodox wife. Last week, Papandreou—who is now unable to work more than a few hours a day—appeared before the central committee of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in an effort to squelch calls for his resignation and defend his beloved wife.

The pair have been making headlines in Greece ever since they began an affair in 1988, when Mimi was working as a flight attendant on the prime minister’s plane. Papandreou lost office the following year, then made a dramatic comeback in 1993. After that, the premier handed his new wife more and more control, ultimately naming her chief of staff. Last week, he heatedly rejected the party’s summons.

“Whoever wants Andreas Papandreou to be answerable to committees should look elsewhere,” the premier said defiantly before walking out of the session. “The Greek people gave me their confidence and I will continue honoring it.” Commented the left liberal daily Eleftherotypia: “The picture was sad. The once-indisputable leader just read a prepared speech and left.”

At the same time, an Athens prosecutor ordered the tabloid Avriani to stop printing old snapshots of Mimi on its front page on the grounds they were “immoral” and “indecent” The offending photos—some printed under the headline “This is how the grandfather is enticed”—showed Mimi cavorting naked with friends on a beach, before she met the

‘My wife has suffered vile attacks. This is wicked and cowardly, unmanly. ’

premier. The paper had promised more shocking images before the ban was imposed. The court ac-

tion may have come too late to stem voter disenchantment with the first couple. After their marriage in 1989, the public seemed to forgive the indignities imposed on Papandreou’s former wife of 37 years, American-born Margaret Chant, mother of his four children. But a recent poll found that 87 per cent of Greeks feel the time is right for a change in leadership. The first lady, believed to be angling for a cabinet post as culture minister, denounced the photos as a “disrespectful” intrusion from a past life. “Ask how much they paid for them and what is the real purpose,” she said.

Avriani made no secret that its purpose

was to stop the would-be politician from “meddling” in the affairs of state, and to back the PASOK dissenters who accuse Papandreou of nepotism and of having lost touch with reality. Among them is the premier’s former confidante Vasso Papandreou—no relation—who is herself reported to be a former mistress long banished from the PM’s inner court by Mimi. Vasso may have sweet revenge: the former European commissioner for human rights was topping the popularity polls for party leadership last week.

Throughout the uproar, Papandreou has stood staunchly behind Mimi, who is said to spoonfeed him at meals. “I am in command,” he told journalists. “My wife, Dimitra, has suffered vile and unheard-of attacks. This is wicked and cowardly, unmanly.” Friends say he loves her desperately and credits her with keeping him going through emergency open-heart surgery in 1988, the humbling years out of office and a 1990 corruption case that he won. Mimi, meanwhile, has reinvented herself with such touches as breast-reduction surgery, more dignified dress and an increasing number of demure public forays—often at churches.

Observers say Papandreou believes his wife could use the culture ministry as a springboard to higher office. More to the point, if she wins a parliamentary seat in 1997 elections she would gain immunity from prosecution in the “pink palace” affair—the $2-million home in Mimi’s name with 16 bathrooms, 10 bedrooms, three swimming pools, a private chapel and an intensive care unit. Papandreou said he funded it through interest-free loans from friends—a remark that has prompted a corruption investigation.

Ironically, while the ruling party is split and seemingly leaderless, the country is producing its best economic numbers in years. Though still a socialist, Papandreou now pursues conservative policies of fiscal restraint. Still, the successes of his twilight years have failed to stave off younger challengers. “Everyone,” said one academic, “is smelling a corpse. The vultures are circling for the succession. The problem is nobody knows how long the prime minister will hang on.” As the plot twists continue, what began as a paperback romance may soon grow to a fullscale Greek drama.

LOUISE BRANSON in Athens