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Greece: Conservatives Sweep Into Power

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Greece's conservative New Democracy Party, led by Costas Karamanlis, won power in yesterday's general election, ending more than a decade of rule by the socialists. Karamanlis is promising to modernize the economy and to carry through the massively expensive Olympic games to take place in Athens this summer.

Athens, 8 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Greeks have been celebrating the results of the general election, in which the conservative New Democracy Party of Costas Karamanlis ousted from power the long-ruling Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement of George Papandreou.

"Today, with your vote, you have brought about your wish for political change, for a new policy in this new era that we live in."
The socialists, known by the acronym PASOK, have ruled the country for 19 of the last 22 years, including an unbroken run over the last 11 years.

Voter fatigue finally caught up with PASOK yesterday, when the electorate backed New Democracy by a comfortable margin. That party is expected to have some 165 seats in the 300-seat parliament, giving it a solid working majority.

Papandreou bowed out gracefully at a press conference held even before the official results were complete.

"I wish Mr. Karamanlis success in his new post, for the good of all of Greece. [PASOK], after a long period in power, remained strong and true. And we will continue on our road to progress and renewal," Papandreou said.

Both Papandreou and Karamanlis come from families with long traditions of involvement in Greek politics. Papandreou's father and grandfather were prime ministers, and Karamanlis is the nephew of a former prime minister.

A delighted Karamanlis last night welcomed the result, saying his countrymen want a change in political direction.

"Today, with your vote, you have brought about your wish for political change, for a new policy in this new era that we live in," Karamanlis said.

Karamanlis has promised policies to attract fresh foreign investment to Greece, which is suffering unemployment of almost 10 percent despite growth rates that are above average in the EU's eurozone.

Regional expert Claus Papenbrock of Deutsche Bank Research in Frankfurt says the real question facing Karamanlis is how he tackles the economic slump that is sure to follow the Olympic games in August.

Papenbrock says, "In summer we have the 2004 Olympiade in Athens and there are huge investment projects, which means that economic activity is very high at the moment, notably higher than the average in the rest of the eurozone, and as a result of this there is a somewhat heightened inflation rate."

Papenbrock says the sudden end to this Olympic economic activity will lead to a slowdown in the overall economy afterwards, but he says this will likely be mild because of the continued EU support for Greece.

In a broader sense, success in staging the games is a key issue for Karamanlis, in that Greeks see it as a matter of national pride.

At the moment, things hang by a thread. Only 15 of 39 major games venues are complete, and big infrastructure projects like urban rail links are behind schedule. Even before he gave his victory speech on 7 March, Karamanlis pledged to supporters to make the games the "best and safest ever held.” He also met with the games chief organizer Gianna Angelopoulos to plan how to inject new vigor into the preparations.

There is also the question of providing security for the games from international terrorism. Greece has stretched its security resources to the limit, and is receiving support from other countries, including the United States. British sports writer Duncan MacKay says this aspect at least appears well in hand.

"Once people get there [to Athens] and see the level of security, they will feel reassured, because it is going to be so huge and so visible that I can't believe that anyone would even think of trying anything," MacKay said.

On the foreign policy front, the new leader will have the urgent task of helping solve the division of the island of Cyprus, which is due to join the European Union on 1 May.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is pushing a comprehensive settlement plan aimed at ending the 30-year-old split of the island into separate ethnic Greek and Turkish communities. Annan's plan calls for a single state with Greek and Turkish Cypriot federal regions linked through a central government.

Karamanlis will be in a position to give the final push to the Greek Cypriots to remove their lingering reservations about being rushed into an agreement, and can also encourage the Turkish Cypriots, through contacts with Turkey.

However, the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot part of the island will anyway join the EU in May even if there is no settlement. Senior analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Mike Emerson, says that makes Karamanlis's task harder.

"It is not self-evident how strong the Greek government's leverage over the Republic of Cyprus really is. The Turkish situation is quite different, because Turkey has its own interests in getting an agreement so that it can itself open accession negotiations [with the EU], but the Greek side is not under similar pressure from the EU to put such great pressure on the Greek Cypriots," Emerson said.

But a failure to solve the problem at such a historic moment would count as a setback for Greek diplomacy. It would also severely complicate Turkey's bid to join the EU, which has the support of Athens.