Image: Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis
Nikolas Giakoumidis  /  AP
Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis casts his ballot at a polling station in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki during general elections on Sunday. His party lost.
updated 10/4/2009 4:13:28 PM ET 2009-10-04T20:13:28

Greece's opposition Socialists won an early election by a landslide Sunday, initial results indicated, with voters angered by scandals and a faltering economy ousting conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

Official results from 39.66 percent of votes counted showed former foreign minister George Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, ahead with 43.66 percent, compared to 35.29 percent for Karamanlis' New Democracy party. If the figures remain unchanged, the result gives PASOK a comfortable majority of about 158 seats in the 300-member parliament, bringing the party back to power after five years of conservative governance.

Papandreou, 57, now follows in the footsteps of his father, party founder Andreas Papandreou, and grandfather and namesake George Papandreou, both of whom served several terms as prime ministers.

Karamanlis, 53, stepped down from the New Democracy leadership, saying he will not be a candidate again for the presidency of the party that his late uncle Constantine Karamanlis founded 35 years ago to the day.

PASOK's victory, along with a recent election win by socialists in Portugal, bucks a European trend that has seen a conservative surge in the continent's powerhouse economies, including most recently in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel won re-election last week.

"This is a historic victory for PASOK, which means great responsibility for us," senior party official and former minister Evangelos Venizelos said outside party headquarters, surrounded by jubilant supporters lighting flares and waving PASOK flags depicting the party's symbol of a green rising sun.

Congratulations to victor
Thousands of cheering supporters mobbed a smiling Papandreou as he arrived at the central Athens headquarters as the results trickled in, while others drove through the city honking their horns.

Karamanlis telephoned Papandreou to congratulate his rival on his victory, New Democracy said in an announcement.

Final projections by the company carrying out the vote counting indicated PASOK would win with as much as 43.8 percent, with Karamanlis' New Democracy trailing at 33.9 percent — which would be the conservatives' worst electoral performance ever.

The conservatives made "a poor showing," New Democracy lawmaker and former minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis admitted. "It is obvious that PASOK has won a clear victory."

Karamanlis, 53, called the election just halfway through his second four-year term in a risky gamble that ultimately failed, saying he needed a strong new mandate to tackle Greece's economic woes. He had already been trailing in opinion polls when he called the election in early September, sparking criticism from within his own party.

Financial scandals hurt
Karamanlis stormed to power in 2004 to become the youngest prime minister in modern Greek history after more than a decade of socialist rule. He was re-elected in 2007, but quickly saw his popularity eroded by several financial scandals, including a land-swap deal with a Greek Orthodox monastery that cost the state more than ⁈llion ($145 million) and forced two of Karamanlis' close aides to resign.

Authorities' failure to contain widespread riots sparked by the fatal police shooting of a teenager in Athens in December also undermined the conservatives' position, which the global financial crisis finished off.

Many conservative voters were angered by rising crime and the riots, when anarchists rampaged through Greek cities, smashing shops and banks with little police intervention.

A small bomb exploded in Athens on Friday, without causing injury, two blocks from the site of Karamanlis' final campaign speech. A far-left group, Conspiracy Nuclei of Fire, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which caused no injuries.

"What I believe is happening today is that Karamanlis is paying for his past mistakes, for the financial situation," voter Alexandros Panagiotakopoulos said outside New Democracy's headquarters watching the results on a giant outdoor screen.

Now, it will be Papandreou who will have to deal with his country's faltering economy, which is expected to contract in 2009 after years of strong growth, while the budget deficit will probably exceed 6 percent of economic output.

In contrast to Karamanlis, who advocated an austerity program of freezing state salaries, pensions and hiring, Papandreou has promised to inject up to ⁈ion to jump-start the economy. However, his government will likely have to borrow heavily just to service the ballooning debt — set to exceed 100 percent of GDP this year — and keep paying public sector wages and pensions. Papandreou has pledged to limit borrowing by reducing government waste and going after tax dodgers.

The Greek Communist Party, far right-wing LAOS and the small Left Coalition are expected to retain their representation in Parliament, while the Ecologist-Greens were hovering on the fringe of the 3 percent threshold for entry.

"Mr. Karamanlis brought PASOK into power," said LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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