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Greek socialists concede election defeat { March 7 2004 }

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Greek socialists concede election defeat
By Kerin Hope in Athens
Published: March 7 2004 15:52 | Last Updated: March 8 2004 8:02

The centre-right New Democracy party on Sunday night won a sweeping victory in Greece’s general election, putting an end to a decade of Socialist rule.

Costas Karamanlis, the new prime minister who has never previously held a cabinet post, faces difficult decisions in the next few weeks over the future of Cyprus and Greece’s lagging preparations for the Olympic Games.

He said on Sunday night:”Greece has turned a page. We will work together to find a just solution to the Cyprus problem, and to make the Olympics the best and the safest games that have ever taken place.”

George Papandreou, the Socialist leader, pledged to support the new government on both issues. Conceding defeat, he said:” The Cyprus issue is at a very difficult point and we’ll do everything we can to get a just and viable solution – and we’ll support the effort for the Olympic games.”

With almost one-third of votes counted, New Democracy led with 47 per cent to 41 per cent for the Panhellenic Socialist Movement. The Greek Communist party trailed in third place with 5 per cent.

New Democracy appeared set to win almost 170 seats in the 300-seat parliament to 120 for the Socialists under Greece’s proportional voting system, which awards additional seats to the frontrunning party.

Analysts said the swing to the right reflected voters' desire for change. The Socialists had gained ground after Mr Papandreou, former foreign minister and the most popular Greek politician, took over the party leadership last month from Costas Simitis, the outgoing prime minister. But the Socialist party, in power for 19 of the past 22 years, was seen by voters as having become ineffectual and corrupt.

The Greek government is closely involved in the UN-sponsored negotiations over Cyprus, which are aimed at reunifying the island before it joins the European Union on May 1. As the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders remain divided on reunification, the Greek and Turkish governments are set to play an important role in brokering a deal.

Mr Karamanlis has kept up contacts with Turkish leaders while in opposition, but still has to convince the Ankara government that the conservatives will maintain the rapprochement launched by the Socialists.

His immediate task will be to appoint cabinet ministers to handle the Olympic preparations who can inspire the confidence of the International Olympic Committee and Greece's western allies. The posts of defence minister and public order minister are seen as especially sensitive for the success of the games.

A two-week security exercise for the Olympics, the most extensive to date, starts on Wednesday. It will involve several thousand Greek troops and police, including anti-terrorism units, as well as a team of US security experts.

The Socialist government has been struggling to meet deadlines agreed with the IOC to complete sports venues and transport projects at least three months ahead of the games.

Mr Karamanlis has pledged to leave in place senior officials involved with the Olympics. But apart from senior police and security officials, most Socialist appointees are expected to resign rather than try to co-operate with a conservative administration.

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