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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greek Premier Faces Fight for Party Post

ATHENS -- Raising cheers and jeers, Premier Costas Simitis threw down a challenge to 5,000 Socialist delegates Thursday, saying he would resign if they did not elect him to succeed the late Andreas Papandreou as party leader.

The popular and charismatic Papandreou died of a heart attack on Sunday aged 77. His state funeral was held Wednesday, one day before the national congress began discussing his succession.

The congress is expected to pick its new chairman on Sunday, in the first change of leadership since Papandreou founded the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, in 1974.

"Only if the party chairman and the premier are the same person can we secure the unity of coordination and action, of responsibility -- and this applies not only to me but to every comrade here," Simitis said.

"If I am not elected chairman I will resign as premier. Whoever is elected chairman will have to be the PASOK premier who will replace me," he added.

Delegates opposed to Simitis began chanting "Shame," apparently seeing the challenge as blackmail. Others applauded. Earlier, some delegates had been angered by the premier's reference that under Papandreou the party's collective decision-making organs had been idle. "Andreas, you live. You lead us," they chanted, interrupting him. It was not clear how many the hecklers were, nor whether they were anywhere near a majority.

Simitis was elected premier by the party in January when Papandreou resigned because of ill health. Papandreou, however, retained a tight grip on the party, leading to the current leadership struggle between Simitis and Interior Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos.

Tsochadzopoulos, a faithful Papandreou lieutenant whom Simitis narrowly defeated in a vote by PASOK legislators for premier, wants the posts of premier and party chairman to be separate.

With 170 seats in the 300-member Parliament, the party has a comfortable majority and a mandate to govern until the fall of 1997. The congress is being held in the cavernous Olympic stadium complex in the northern Athens suburb of Marousi.

In his speech, Simitis cast off his usual mild manners and said that he wanted the party to break with the past to meet the challenges of the future.

"Unity comes from us being frank with each other here," he shouted back at the hecklers. He accused opponents in the party of undermining his efforts to revive the economy and to run foreign policy.

Simitis, 60, is a law and economics professor who served in various ministerial posts in two Socialist administrations, resigning twice after disagreeing with Papandreou's populist policies. He was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1985. He speaks German, English and French.

If he loses his bid to lead the party its parliamentary group will have to choose another premier to lead the government.