YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Incumbent victorious in Greece

Karamanlis secures another term with his party's victory, despite anger at his response to deadly wildfires.

September 17, 2007|Paul Tugwell and Tracy Wilkinson | Special to The Times

SARONIDA, GREECE — Greece's ruling conservatives on Sunday won a fiercely contested election overshadowed by the summer's devastating wildfires, scoring a victory despite widespread public discontent that gave a boost to smaller political parties.

With nearly all of the ballots counted, the New Democracy Party of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was ahead with about 42.2%, while the leading opposition Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, had about 38.2%.

Karamanlis claimed victory early today, saying the nation had handed him a "clear mandate to continue with the reforms the country needs." And PASOK leader George Papandreou conceded defeat, saying his party had "fought a battle and lost it."

The two factions have taken turns ruling Greece for decades.

Many voters spurned the traditional leaders and voted for parties that ranged from the hard-line left to extreme right, according to the exit polls. The two major parties together took 86% of the vote in 2004.

"I voted for KKE [the Communist Party], not because I believe in communism but because I'm tired of the two large parties," said Anastasios Papailias, a 46-year-old tour operator, outside a polling station south of Athens. "It's better to have a stronger presence of the smaller parties in parliament so New Democracy and PASOK can't do whatever they want."

Voters were outraged at the government's seemingly clumsy handling of the recent wildfires that killed at least 65 people and destroyed thousands of acres of prime farm and forest land. And the blame did not stop there; voters accused successive governments of neglecting the environment and turning Greece into the tinderbox that made it so vulnerable to the fires' destructive rampage.

Financial scandals and a host of pocketbook issues also played an important role in Sunday's vote. Although unemployment is down and the economy is growing at a respectable pace, 20% of the country still lives below the poverty line, making Greece one of the poorest members of the European Union.

Karamanlis, prime minister since 2004, called elections six months early and is now on the verge of another four-year term. He said before Sunday's election that his government was determined to pursue difficult economic changes, such as overhauling the pension system. He also pledged to help rebuild areas ruined in the fires.

"Our country lived through an unprecedented natural catastrophe . . . and yet from this trial we have emerged armed with greater determination," he told supporters. "The state will do whatever is needed, for as long as it is needed, to completely heal all the wounds."

With election returns coming in late Sunday and early today, it remained unclear by what margin New Democracy would win. Securing a clear majority in the 300-seat Parliament is crucial to its ability to govern and carry out its promised program.

If preliminary projections hold, it would appear that the Socialists were unable to capitalize sufficiently on dissatisfaction with the government. PASOK's performance calls into question Papandreou's future as party leader.

Both he and Karamanlis are scions of family dynasties that have dominated Greek politics for most of the last half-century.

To the extent that voters went with smaller parties, they were rebelling against the status quo that the two dynasties represent.

"I didn't want to vote for either of the two large parties; they're out of touch," said first-time voter Constantinos Danos, 19. He said he cast his ballot for the Green Party as "a new and different alternative to the big parties. And they have fresher ideas. I also feel that they are closer to Greece's youth."

Athina Papadopoulou, 45, a lawyer, cast a protest vote for a far-left party because none of the other factions held any appeal for her.

"This election was a real dilemma," Papadopoulou said. "I didn't want to give my vote to either of the two large parties, as they are both as bad as one another, always saying the same things."

Georgia Vlaxou, 34, who organizes conferences for a living, said she voted for New Democracy, as she always has, but reluctantly.

"There is no real alternative," she said. "In Greece, we need something new, perhaps a new party with younger politicians and new ideas."

A likely benefactor of the desertion from the main parties is a far-right, populist faction known as LAOS, its acronym in Greek. Early results indicate that it will probably meet the 3% vote threshold needed to enter Parliament for the first time.

The party is seen by many as xenophobic: It advocates closer ties to the Greek Orthodox Church, a quota on immigration and the deportation of many immigrants already in the country.

Car salesman Vangelis Kalogeropoulos, 34, abandoned New Democracy for LAOS because the two main parties "promise everything and deliver nothing."

Kalogeropoulos said he didn't support LAOS, but he wanted "another voice in Parliament that can act as a brake on New Democracy and PASOK."

Los Angeles Times Articles