Greek Socialists Win in a Landslide
By RACHEL DONADIO and ANTHEE CARASSAVA
Published: October 4, 2009
ATHENS — Socialists won national elections in Greece on Sunday, trouncing a center-right government crippled by corruption scandals and a growing economic crisis.
With 88 percent of Greece’s 10 million votes counted, according to The Associated Press, the Socialist Pasok Party was leading with 44 percent of the vote to 34 percent for the center-right New Democracy Party, a margin expected to give the Socialists their largest victory ever and a comfortable majority in Parliament.
“Today we set off together to build the Greece we want and need. We have no time to waste,” the Socialist leader, George Papandreou, said in his victory speech. “We want it, we can do it, we will succeed.”
“Nothing will be easy,” he added. “But I will always be honest and upfront with the Greeks.”
In conceding defeat, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis said he had failed to persuade Greeks to accept the two years of austerity measures he had called for to steer the country out of its economic crisis. “The voters did not approve of this policy. It was their choice, and I respect it,” he said.
Mr. Karamanlis also stepped down as leader of the New Democracy Party, which suffered its worst performance since the restoration of Greek democracy in 1974 after years of military dictatorship. He said he would call a party congress to elect a new leader within a month.
Mr. Karamanlis, 53, called early elections last month, two years into a mandate dogged by corruption scandals and economic crisis, aiming to win a fresh mandate and stave off labor unrest. He had called for a freeze in public-sector wages to fight rising debt and unemployment, but he had difficulty pushing through important economic and structural reforms because he governed with a one-vote margin in Parliament.
Mr. Papandreou, 57, instead favored increased spending, including a $4.5 billion stimulus package to revive the Greek economy though infrastructure projects and environmentally sustainable development, while cracking down on tax evasion. Experts estimate that Greece loses $17.5 billion annually in unpaid income taxes and $13 billion in unpaid payroll taxes.
The victory by the Socialists here was a rare event for Europe, where the left has been losing ground and has often been unable to capitalize on the financial crisis for its own political gain.
But many Greek voters appeared to be voting against Mr. Karamanlis as much as for the Socialists. After two decades of Socialist rule, Mr. Karamanlis was elected in 2004 promising to restore faith in government.
But Greeks began to lose confidence in him after a series of corruption scandals and over the government’s lack of swift response to wildfires over the past few years, as well as its handling of violent protests after a teenage boy was shot and killed by the police last December.
Pasok inherits a difficult situation. After 15 years of sustained growth, the Greek economy is expected to slide into a recession this year, exacerbated by endemic problems including a costly and ailing pension system. The pillars of the Greek economy, tourism and shipping, have also been hard hit by the crisis.
Mr. Papandreou has said he will start by asking the European Commission to extend the timeframe in which Greece is required to bring its deficit, estimated at 7.8 percent of gross domestic product, under the 3 percent ceiling set for the euro zone.
During the campaign, Mr. Papandreou said he would bring in well-regarded financial experts from abroad and vowed to increase meritocracy in a system still dominated by political patronage.