Sun, Mar 07, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Conservatives ahead as Greece goes to the polls

AP , ATHENS, GREECE

Campaigns for a Greek general election ended Friday with the conservatives slightly ahead, hoping to end a decade in opposition and emerge the winners just five months before the Summer Olympics in Athens.

Costas Caramanlis' conservative New Democracy party has been leading the governing socialists in opinion polls by about 3 percentage points, ahead of Sunday's election.

His party exploited voter discontent over increasing living costs, poor public services and an unemployment rate running at about 9 percent.

Ending the monthlong campaign Friday, tens of thousands of Socialist party supporters gathered in central Athens to attend the last political rally.

The socialists, in power for all but three years since 1981, switched leaders a month ago in a bid for an unprecedented fourth term. They replaced Premier Costas Simitis with George Papandreou, the popular 51-year-old foreign minister.

Papandreou and Caramanlis, 47, both come from Greece's two most established political families but have promised to modernize the country by ushering in a younger generation of politicians.

The new premier will face urgent construction deadlines for the Aug. 13-29 Olympics, with serious delays at the main games complex and building crews already working round-the-clock to complete other stalled projects.

New Democracy spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos argued that a change in government will not slow preparations.

"We will not replace any of the key people organizing the Olympics after the elections," Roussopoulos told reporters.

"I don't think there will be any change in the anxiety level beyond that which already exists due to the long delays in some projects," he said.

The socialists warned Friday that New Democracy's lack of experience could lead to more problems.

"Olympic preparations are at a very delicate stage and involve issues of security," Deputy Trade Minister Kimon Koulouris said. "Even the slightest mistake could hurt Greece's standing abroad."

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