updated 3/7/2004 3:10:34 PM ET 2004-03-07T20:10:34

Greece’s conservatives defeated the governing Socialist party in parliament elections Sunday, exit polls and early results showed. Their first task will be overcoming massive delays in Athens’ preparations for the Olympic Games.

Socialist leader George Papandreou conceded defeat after various exit polls — carried by private and state-run television — gave the conservative New Democracy party a lead of about 5 percentage points. All exit polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent.

“New Democracy won the elections,” Papandreou said. “We will help the effort for the Olympic Games ... a very big moment for our country.”

Early returns also showed the Socialists headed for defeat after more than a decade in power.

The conservatives, led by 47-year-old Costas Caramanlis, began celebrating on the strength of the figures. Car horns blared and champagne corks popped during street parties. New Democracy supporters sent out mobile phone text messages proclaiming: “We’re coming!”

If the exit polls are confirmed by the vote count, it would give the conservatives an overwhelming majority in the 300-seat parliament. Under the Greek system, the winning party takes the lion’s share of seats.

Voters at a crossroads
The elections had put voters at a clear crossroads: Stick with the decade-old Socialist establishment or turn to the inexperienced conservatives.

New Democracy party had been consistently ahead in opinion polls with the Socialists widely perceived as rife with corruption, inefficiency and political arrogance after leading the country for all but three years since 1981.

The Socialists began to claw back last month by turning to their roots — handing the leadership over to popular former foreign minister, George Papandreou, the 51-year-old American-born son of the party’s charismatic founder.

New Democracy, which governed from 1990-93, saw the election as a referendum on its relevance. Victory would signal the end of the Socialist grip and show important changes in Greek attitudes, which have been heavily influenced in favor of the left since the collapse of the 1964-74 military dictatorship.

“This is the day of the voters and we have absolute confidence in their judgment,” Caramanlis said after voting in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

Olympics challenge looms
There was one certainty: The winner must immediately confront the huge challenges ahead to pull off a successful Olympics this summer.

Many projects for the Aug. 13-29 Games remain 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.

Caramanlis has promised to keep key Olympic planning personnel in place if he takes over.

But there are also fears that a conservative victory could lead to labor unrest from Socialist-dominated unions and disrupt the Olympic work.

Struggling Socialists
Four years ago, the Socialists survived with a slim 1 percent victory, and the party has struggled ever since. Many Greeks complain that the country’s European Union partners, such as Ireland, have seen economic booms while the Greek economy has stagnated. They also complain of rising prices and falling living standards since adopting the euro two years ago.

Much of Papandreou’s popularity rests on his success at improving once-hostile relations with neighboring Turkey and his famous name. His father, the late Premier 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.

Papandreou’s grandfather, also named George, served as premier in center-left governments during the 1960s.

Papandreou has gone to lengths to show his Greek character in one of Europe’s most deeply anti-American nations. His mother is American and he was born in St. Paul, Minn., while his father was teaching at a university.

The Socialist platform calls for expanded social welfare programs and higher pensions. But Papandreou has also promised a leaner government, speedier privatizations of state enterprises and lower corporate taxes — policies that break with traditional Socialist ideology.

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

Voting is compulsory in Greece, which has a population of 11 million people. There are nearly 10 million registered voters — a large number attributed to an aging population and the many Greeks living abroad.

Parties need at least 3 percent of the vote to gain a seat in parliament. The Greek Communist Party is expected to clear the threshold. The Left Coalition is struggling to retain a place in the chamber.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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