ATHENS — Andreas Papandreou, the black sheep Socialist who runs Greece with wasp's tongue and autocrat's whim, is a man of both passion and tradition.
As darkness falls on historic Constitution Square tonight, he will acknowledge the cheers of tens of thousands there to salute their charismatic champion. The climactic downtown election rally, as Greek as ouzo, could be Papandreou's last hurrah.
The Yankee-baiting former Berkeley economics professor who has dominated Greek political life for a decade is the snarling underdog in his quest for a third term as prime minister.
After a campaign focused less on substance than scandal and septuagenarian sex, Papandreou and his tarnished Panhellenic Socialist Movement, called PASOK, trail badly in every poll.
That leaves as the clear favorite in Sunday's election a plodding Constantine Mitsotakis of the conservative New Democracy Party. A shotgun coalition of leftists weighted heavily by Communists more Brezhnev than Gorbachev should finish a distant third.
Mitsotakis, 70, a one-time Papandreou ally and long-time foe, was buoyed by the huge turnout at his own rally in the downtown square Thursday night. He is predicting that New Democracy will win an absolute majority in the 300-seat Parliament that Papandreou has controlled for eight years.
If the New Democrats fall short in Parliament, observers say Greece could slide into a distressing period of unstable coalition governments.
A 'Classical Question'
"Whether Greeks are ungovernable, or just not very adept at choosing leaders, is a classical question first posed by Homer," observed The Athenian, an English-language magazine, in a remark that reflects public disquiet with the level of campaign debate.
One pollster says that voters increasingly are turning off their televisions and radios as election day nears. The circulation of shrill, partisan Athens newspapers has slumped.
For nearly a year, since the 70-year-old Papandreou sneaked off to London with a blonde mistress half his age to undergo triple bypass heart surgery, Greek public life has been an uncommon spectacle: "A boundless madhouse," in the judgment of elder statesman and former President Constantine Caramanilis.
"Intellectually, I knew that some marriages fail, but emotionally, it was unbelievable to discover my husband's erotic desire was so important," said Margaret Papandreou, the prime minister's American-born wife of 38 years. A divorce decree was issued last week, but not in time to allow Papandreou to remarry before the election.
Papandreou's blatant winter-summer affair with Dimitra Liani, 35, a former flight attendant, has obsessed Greece for months on end. Papandreou, charged Mitsotakis, has become "a laughing stock."
Describing his new love as "a way of life," the prime minister responded that he has no time for "mud-slinging dwarfs."
After an opposition magazine published pictures of Liani topless, a PASOK newspaper published transcripts of what were described as telephone conversations between Mitsotakis and a lover in Salonica named Katerina.
"We haven't found Katerina yet," an earnest Greek journalist confided, "but we will. And if she turns out to be tall and blonde, it will be a very big story."
In the titillating maelstrom, pressing national concerns such as the stagnant economy, troublesome inflation, an alarming budget deficit and a large foreign debt have drawn scant campaign attention. So have terrorism, the future of four U.S. bases here, and Greek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community--both challenged by a Papandreou who came to power in 1981 envisioning Greece as a neutral bridge between East and West, North and South.
Papandreou, whose first term brought progress and dignity to Greeks politically oppressed and economically disadvantaged by previous right-wing governments, campaigns this time for "continuity."
"Our enemy is not the left, it is the right," the gaunt Papandreou told supporters at a recent rally, asserting PASOK's unchanging commitment to "socialism, democracy, patriotism, and peace."
Papandreou's support remains strong among women, workers and residents of rural areas, all of whom have been beneficiaries of Socialist legislation. Over the past eight years, Greek living standards have risen, particularly in the countryside, where farmers once as leery as Papandreou of foreign entanglements now relish European Community subsidies that contribute 5% to the Greek gross domestic product.
The gains, though, have been effectively undercut by financial scandals of unprecedented magnitude that have reached high into PASOK and the Papandreou government.
When Mitsotakis charges that Papandreou has directed "a government of scandals, decay and corruption," even voters unmoved by their prime minister's love saga are inclined to agree, Greek pollsters say.