- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

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

Results from 56 percent of the vote had the New Democracy party beating the Socialists 47 percent to 41 percent 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!”

Mr. Caramanlis waved to supporters amid a sea of flares and blue party banners. Some also unfurled the five-ring Olympic flags 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 Prime Minister 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 bulk 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.

The Socialists were punished. Many voters perceived the 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, Mr. Papandreou, the American-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,” Mr. Papandreou said in a brief concession speech. “We will help the effort for the Olympic Games … a very big moment for our country.”

Many projects for the Aug. 13-29 Games remain seriously behind schedule, including a glass-and-steel roof planned for the main stadium. The government must also make sure the unprecedented $800 million security network keeps pace with possible threats. Joint U.S.-Greek military exercises are scheduled to begin Wednesday to train for possible terrorist attacks during the Games, including hijackings and hostage-taking.

Mr. Caramanlis has promised to keep key Olympics planning personnel, especially in the security services. But there are also fears that a conservative victory could lead to labor unrest from Socialist-dominated unions and disrupt the Olympics works.

Mr. Caramanlis also will have to guide Greece in the U.N.-backed talks to reunite the war-divided island of Cyprus, which will join the European Union on May 1, along with nine other members.

“The Greek people have voted against the old and invested hope in the new,” said New Democracy strategist Marietta Giannakou Koutisikou.

It also shows important changes in Greek attitudes, which had tended heavily to the left since the collapse of the 1964-74 military dictatorship.

Greece would be following a path toward the right blazed by other European nations in recent years, including Portugal and Italy.

In Austria yesterday, Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party won elections in his home Carinthia province. Spain’s conservative Popular Party is forecast to win parliamentary elections Sunday.

Four years ago in Greece, the Socialists survived with a slim 1 percent victory. The party has struggled ever since. Many Greeks complain that other European Union partners, such as Ireland, have boomed while the Greek economy has failed to modernize. They also complain of rising prices and falling living standards since adopting the euro two years ago.

Mr. Papandreou, 51, now must lead the Socialists in the unfamiliar role of opposition party.

His father, the late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, founded the party three decades ago and built it into a powerhouse by doling out civil-service jobs and appealing to Greek insecurities ? especially toward U.S. policies in the region and Washington’s support of the junta.

Mr. Papandreou’s grandfather, also named George, served as prime minister in center-left governments during the 1960s. Mr. Papandreou’s mother is American, and he was born in St. Paul, Minn., while his father was teaching at a university.

Mr. Caramanlis — who is also the scion of a well-known Greek political family — has promised smaller government, less bureaucracy and fewer taxes. Mr. Caramanlis also has pledged more funds for social welfare, education and health.

New Democracy was founded in 1974 by his uncle, former prime minister and president Constantine Caramanlis.

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