Scale of Conservatives' triumph stuns Greece

By Kerin Hope
Published March 8th 2004 in Financial Times (EU)

Costas Karamanlis, who is due to be sworn in as Greece's prime minister on Wednesday has brought the conservatives back to power with a bang.

Candidates and campaign workers alike appeared stunned on Monday by the extent of New Democracy's landslide win in Sunday's general election.

"New Democracy ran an effective campaign, but the key factor seems to be that voters were thoroughly fed up with the Socialists," said Theodore Coloumbis of Eliamep, an Athens think-tank.

Near-final results gave ND 45.4 per cent of the vote to 40.5 per cent for the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, a significantly wider margin than most pollsters had predicted. The conservatives will have 165 seats in the 300-seat parliament to 117 for the Socialists, with the remaining seats going to two small leftwing parties.

At 47, Mr Karamanlis will be Greece's youngest leader for more than a century and one of its most inexperienced. With ND in power for only three of the past 22 years, Mr Karamanlis has spent his entire political career on the back benches or in opposition.

But he has built a reputation as a streetwise politician. After the Socialists conceded defeat, he was quick to highlight the need for consensus over the reunification of Cyprus and the Olympic Games, due to open in August.

"United and all together, we'll fight for a just and viable solution to the Cyprus problem, and to make the Olympics the best and safest games ever," he said.

The nephew and namesake of the prime minister who negotiated Greece's entry in 1981 to the then European Economic Community, Mr Karamanlis was propelled into the party leadership on the strength of his name.

His background is typical of Greece's conservative elite. Trained in Athens as a lawyer, he earned a doctorate in international relations at Tufts University in the US and took over a safe parliamentary seat in Thessaloniki, an ND stronghold.

At first, Mr Karamanlis struggled to seize control of ND from a group of elderly power brokers that included former party leaders. But after seven years in the leadership, he has succeeded in pushing aside most of the older generation and distancing himself from the party's nationalist faction.

During the campaign, Mr Karamanlis pledged that if elected he would personally fight in Brussels to prevent cuts in subsidies for Greek farmers producing cotton, olive oil and tobacco.

But the most urgent foreign policy issue he faces is the March 22 deadline set by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, for a settlement on Cyprus.

As opposition leader, Mr Karamanlis spoke in favour of building closer Greek-Turkish ties. He has built a personal relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, aimed at mirroring the one developed by George Papandreou, the Socialist leader.

Mr Erdogan on Monday welcomed Mr Karamanlis's election win and made clear he was prepared to give a push to the UN-sponsored talks on reunifying Cyprus ahead of its EU accession in May. The Turkish prime minister has made clear he is prepared to offer a land-for-peace deal to speed a settlement.

Mr Karamanlis and his foreign policy team, due to be announced on Tuesday, will come under immediate pressure to take a position on Cyprus.

Greece's role may include persuading the Greek Cypriot community to accept the UN proposals for reunification, which have to be approved in separate referendums by each community.

Three separate opinion polls published in Cyprus at the weekend showed between 53 and 63 per cent of Greek Cypriots would vote against reunification. This compared with a poll of Turkish Cypriots showing 56 per cent in favour of the current UN proposals.