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Greeks Oust Socialists, Elect Conservatives

The longtime ruling party was seen as corrupt and inefficient. Officials say change will not affect the Olympics.

March 08, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Greeks on Sunday dumped the Socialist party that has ruled them for most of the last quarter-century, voting to bring in a new, conservative government five months before the nation plays host to the Summer Olympics.

Preliminary results from Sunday's vote in national parliamentary elections gave a comfortable lead to the right-wing New Democracy Party of Costas Karamanlis. Late Sunday, the head of the governing Panhellenic Socialist Movement, George Papandreou, conceded defeat as his opponents flooded the streets of Athens waving flags and blaring their car horns.

"I wish Mr. Karamanlis success in his work for the good of all of Greece," declared Papandreou, scion of one of the country's political dynasties and son of the party's founder.

With that concession, an era came to an end: Papandreou's Socialist party, known by its initials PASOK, having reigned almost uninterrupted for 23 years, finally succumbed to allegations of corruption and inefficiency and a public desire for change.

Karamanlis, a U.S.-educated lawyer and another heir of the country's political elite, spoke to his supporters later Sunday, saying his win was a victory for democracy. He pledged to make a successful Olympics a priority.

He also vowed to make good on campaign promises to attract foreign investment and create jobs. Greece has one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union, but high prices and rampant unemployment have widened the gap between rich and poor.

Papandreou's PASOK was seen as arrogant and complacent from so many years in office. Karamanlis' conservatives are untested in running the country at a crucial juncture in Greek history, including ongoing negotiations aimed at uniting the long-divided neighboring island of Cyprus.

The question on the minds of many outside Greece, however, is what impact a change in government will have on the Olympics, due to start in August. Preparations are woefully behind schedule, with many key venues still unbuilt and security concerns high.

Greek officials took great pains to insist that a switch in national leadership would not hamper the handling of the Olympics. Many -- but not all -- key figures in the preparations are independent of the regime.

"We have managed to work together, beyond the differences in political parties, and we will work together again on Monday," Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said at a news conference a few hours before the polls opened.

Several analysts and diplomats said Greece has too much invested -- especially in its image and self-validation -- to allow the election to derail the Olympics. Karamanlis has promised a seamless continuation of the preparations. But others noted that it would be tempting for New Democracy to put its own mark on the Games. At the least, changing governments at this late date will allow the left and the right to blame each other if things go wrong.

"All together, united, we will give our all for the Games to be the best and securest ever held," Karamanlis, 47, said in victory remarks. "The Olympics are a great opportunity for Greece to show its modern face."

The Socialists had governed Greece since 1981, except for a three-year hiatus from 1990 to 1993, when New Democracy was in power.

"I think people are tired of the Socialists," said Paul Panagopoulos, a retired TV stage manager who voted Sunday morning at a school polling booth near the Acropolis.

"Two million Greeks are living on the verge of poverty," continued the white-haired 70-year-old. "Look at me. I've worked since I was 15 and I'm still paying taxes. They grab it from you from every side."

Panagopoulos remembers seeing Georgios Papandreou, the grandfather of today's PASOK leader, delivering a speech as Greece teetered on the brink of civil war.

It is that kind of historical image that shapes the way many Greeks vote. For the electorate to move away from PASOK and squarely into New Democracy's camp represented a significant shift.

Anthony Livanios, a pollster for New Democracy, said Karamanlis -- nephew of the prime minister who led Greece out of military rule -- made inroads in disgruntled groups like farmers and pensioners, people on fixed incomes or those who have been hurt by the inflation introduced when Greece joined the euro zone.

"Today, with your vote, you have confirmed your demand for political change," Karamanlis told supporters Sunday night after claiming victory. "Today you gave a clear mandate for all of us to go forward together."

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