Far right set to win seats in Greek parliament

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Greece's ruling conservatives took a narrow lead, according to early exit polls, in parliamentary elections yesterday following a campaign marred by deadly forest fires. The polls also indicated the far right party Laos gained enough votes to enter parliament for the first time.

Initial exit polls gave Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his New Democracy party between 40.2 per cent and 43 per cent of the vote, while main rivals socialists Pasok have between 36 and 39 percent.

But there were no celebrations at the New Democracy headquarters where thousands of supporters carrying party flags were gathered when the polls came out. Projections indicated that the party had lost seats in parliament after failure to contain deadly wildfires last month.

With about 42 per cent required to form a government the party may struggle to win an overall majority in parliament.

If confirmed, the results indicate that public anger over the response to the fires has pushed many voters to smaller parties, particularly boosting support for the far right Orthodox Rally (Laos) party which, with its mix of nationalism, xenophobia and populist rhetoric, is now likely to break the 3 per cent threshold needed and enter parliament. This would be a significant change in the country's politics as it would be the first time in 30 years, and the second in modern Greece's history, that a far right party had gained parliamentary seats.

The role of the fires in these elections cannot be understated. A month ago when Mr Karamanlis called a snap election, six months before the end of his term, no one doubted New Democracy was going to win. Mr Karamanlis said he called the elections seeking a renewed mandate to speed up potentially unpopular financial reforms. His certainty came because, despite a spate of financial scandals, the government had several solid achievements to show. Greece has one of the fastest rates of economic growth in Europe and unemployment, which stands at 7.7 per cent is the lowest in the last 20 years.

But the fires changed all that. For an entire week, only days after the elections were announced, Karamanlis appeared incapable of controlling the crisis and declared the country to be in a state of emergency asking for help from the EU and other nations. The two main rivals suspended their campaigns for a fortnight, or half of the campaign time available to them, in order to focus on the fires.

Despite the opposition's attempts to capitalise on the government's inability to deal with the situation Pasok did not appear to be attracting dissatisfied voters either. Having governed for nearly 30 years prior to the last election, in 2004, Pasok was widely perceived as responsible for the infrastructure that led to the government's inability to handle the wildfires. And initial results showed that some traditional socialist voters, seem to have waved to the left. The Radical Coalition of the Left (Syriza) party seems to be the main beneficiary of that move.

Mr Karamanlis has described Laos as politically "extreme" and ruled out seeking a coalition with any opposition party if he fails to win a majority in the 300-seat parliament raising the possibility of new elections.

But even if Greece manages to elect a government now, the question remains whether it would be strong enough to proceed with a number of necessary reforms that can no longer wait if the country wants to keep up with its European partners. The main reforms focus on the state pension system which has been described as "a fiscal time bomb", due to the country's large ageing population.