Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Conservatives beat Socialists in Greek election

AP , ATHENS, GREECE

Greek conservatives swept to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections that ended 10 years of Socialist government and assigned a new caretaker to the troubled preparations for this summer's Olympics.

With 56 percent of votes counted, the New Democracy party was beating the Socialists 47 percent to 41 percent in Sunday's vote as part of a deep reshuffling of Greece's political order.

Socialist leader George Papandreou conceded defeat after various exit polls showed New Democracy with a strong lead.

The conservatives, led by 47-year-old Costas Caramanlis, broke into celebration. Car horns blared and champagne corks popped during street parties joined by thousands of people under a full moon. Fireworks exploded overhead. A blitz of cell phone text messages featured the New Democracy emblem and proclaimed: "We're coming!"

Caramanlis waved to supporters amid a sea of flares and blue party banners. Some also unfurled the five-ring Olympic flag in recognition of the new government's main task.

"The job will be difficult and the work ahead of us is hard," said Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, whose father, former Premier Constantine Mitsotakis, is the party's honorary president.

New Democracy was poised to take an overwhelming majority in the 300-seat parliament. Under the Greek system, the winning party takes the lion's share of seats for a four-year term.

The election put voters at a clear crossroads: Stick with the Socialist establishment or turn to the conservatives, whose leader has never served in a Cabinet post.

Caramanlis has promised a smaller government, less bureaucracy and tax cuts to fuel growth and cut an unemployment rate of about 9 percent. Caramanlis has also pledged more funds for social welfare, education and health.

Although Greece has one of the highest growth rates in the EU at 4.7 percent, it is fueled greatly by Olympic projects. Inflation was just under 3 percent.

Caramanlis has complained that Greece's economy could be stronger if the Socialists had better managed EU funds aimed at improving its infrastructure.

Many voters perceived the Socialist party as rife with corruption, inefficiency and political arrogance after leading the country for all but three years since 1981.

The government had staked its hopes on going back to its roots. It handed over the party leadership last month to the popular former foreign minister, Papandreou, the US-born son of the party's charismatic founder.

But he could not crack the strong lead already built by New Democracy, which governed from 1990 to 1993.

"New Democracy won the elections," Papandreou said in a brief concession speech. "We will help the effort for the Olympic Games ... a very big moment for our country."

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