ATHENS — Controversial Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou lost control of Parliament in national elections here Sunday, but conservative challengers apparently fell short in their bid to force him from office.
While the rebuff to Papandreou after eight years of hard-sell socialism had been expected, the seeming failure by conservatives to win a parliamentary majority triggered uncertainty and concern about the Greek political future.
Under a full moon that hung as if painted above the majestic Acropolis, tens of thousands of voters streamed through election-dazzled Athens in honking procession early today, although the makeup of their new government remained in doubt.
With 53% of the vote counted, official nationwide returns gave the New Democracy Party of 70-year-old lawyer Constantine Mitsotakis 45.2% from 7.4 million eligible voters.
Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement, called PASOK, ran an expected second with 38.5%. A coalition of Communists and leftist had 12.8%, with the remaining votes divided among a clutch of minor parties.
"New Democracy cannot form a government because there is a progressive majority in Parliament," Papandreou told supporters in the wee hours this morning.
Speaking to his supporters, Mitsotakis said voters have "condemned the government of scandals and corruption. Mr. Papandreou has rushed to prejudge the final results. I'm waiting to see if we can form a self-sufficient government."
Pre-election estimates set 47% as the threshold for a Mitsotakis majority, but party spokesman Panayotis Lambrias said New Democracy projections showed victory with at least 151 seats in the 300-member Parliament.
However, computer projections broadcast by state television gave New Democracy 147 seats to 124 for PASOK. The Communists had 29.
Under the Greek constitution, President Christos Sartzetakis must ask the leader of the party that finishes first to form a government, in this case Mitsotakis. If he is unable to do so, it would become Papandreou's turn to try.
Papandreou held a narrow majority in the outgoing Parliament. A victory by Mitsotakis without a majority would leave open the possibility of Papandreou's continuing in power with the active or tacit support of the Communists.
Sunday's voting in a mountainous, heavily agricultural nation of 11 million was as orderly as the election campaign had been noisy with allegation and innuendo. With structural political and economic issues sounding only minor keys in the campaign, Mitsotakis made Papandreou the decisive issue.
Promising moral and political "catharsis" to purge a discredited system, Mitsotakis hammered at unprecedented financial scandals that have shaken Greece under Papandreou, and at the 70-year-old prime minister's front-page love affair with a former airline flight attendant half his age.
Nearly a dozen government and party officials, including two of the prime minister's closest associates, have been jailed or are under investigation in embezzlement and procurement scandals involving hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds.
Proclaiming his own innocence, Papandreou accused the United States of trying to topple him. In emotional campaign appeals, the charismatic Papandreou defended the social record of a free-spending government that has improved living standards of workers and farmers across the country.
Papandreou, a former UC Berkeley economics professor first elected in 1981, was returned to office in 1985 with 45.8% of the vote. New Democracy won 40.8% then and the Communists 11.7% in a nation where political life is marked by lingering left-right divisions.
In stark contrast to Papandreou's aggressive and personalistic socialism, New Democracy campaigned for a greater reliance on a market economy and an unabashedly pro-American foreign policy.
Mitsotakis promised to reduce Papandreou-directed frictions between Greece and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community, saying in a New Democracy platform statement that the party "regards U.S. military bases in Greece as crucial for Greece's own defense and favors closer trade and economic relations with the U.S."
Prolonged and stressful negotiations with the Papandreou government to renew the leases of four American air and naval bases were unavailing.
So, too, has the Greek government thus far failed to honor a court decree authorizing the extradition of a Palestinian terrorist wanted by the United States for the 1985 bombing on a Pan Am jet flying near Hawaii that killed a Japanese teen-ager.
Echoing American concern about Papandreou's inability--or unwillingness--to crack down on Arab terrorists who have often found safe harbor in Greece, Mitsotakis promised "a strengthening of European and international cooperation to combat terrorism."