Papandreou scores a convincing win: Mitsotakis, 74, expected to resign as leader of New Democracy after conceding defeat in Greek election

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THE GREEK Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, conceded defeat in national elections late last night, saying his conservative New Democracy party had taken hard decisions and paid the political price for them.

With 40 per cent of the vote counted, the Interior Ministry gave 46.3 per cent of the votes to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), led by Andreas Papandreou, and 41.7 per cent to New Democracy. This would mean about 168 seats for Mr Papandreou in the 300-seat parliament.

'New Democracy, in the three and a half years of its rule, followed the right road and took difficult but necessary decisions (over the economy) . . . and paid the political cost,' Mr Mitsotakis said in a brief televised statement.

He had said earlier that he would resign as party leader if he lost to Pasok, and he announced that he would now start the procedure for electing a new leader for New Democracy. Mr Mitsotakis took a parting shot at the victorious socialists, saying: 'A party is coming to power that does not have clear policies . . . the country is about to go through a period of trial.'

Mr Papandreou crowned his dramatic political career with the victory. The 74-year-old socialist leader has survived imprisonment, scandal, divorce and health problems during his long political life.

As crowds of jubilant flag-waving supporters gathered outside his residence in the Ekali district of Athens Mr Papandreou announced that the 'nightmare' was over and the 'people voted for the people'.

Mr Papandreou's victory represents a dramatic revival of his political fortunes, which were almost dashed when he underwent a triple heart by-pass operation in 1989, at the end of an eight-year administration wracked by scandal.

A short and nasty campaign saw Mr Papandreou triumphantly wielding the nationalist card against Mr Mitsotakis. Both parties used American political consultants to conduct television- based advertising combining vicious character assassination and innuendo to damage their opponents. The New Democracy campaign, showing a frail and elderly Mr Papandreou embracing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, failed to impress voters, however.

Mr Papandreou's pitch was one of confrontational nationalism and economic populism, which struck a responsive chord with voters but which threatens to set Athens on a collision course with its European Community partners and its Balkan neighbours if put into practice, compounding the already strong sense of isolation and insecurity felt by this country.

Though strangely stilted to foreign ears, Mr Papandreou's brand of Hellenic nationalism is capable of stirring deep emotions. Such was the case in his final address to supporters before the election in which he promised a 'great patriotic movement . . . to restore the dignity of Greece. Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, the Aegean and Cyprus will be united in a non-negotiable line of defence,' Mr Papandreou said, using well-understood code for his party's irredentist nationalist policy against its Balkan neighbours.

The dismal showing by New Democracy will be blamed firmly on Mr Mitsotakis, 75, who has failed to impress Greece's 10 million citizens with his handling of difficult economic and foreign policy issues. Even the business community deserted him after he mishandled an ambitious privatisation programme and was linked to a political wire-tapping scandal, as well as a controversy over the provenance of his collection of Greek antiquities.

He badly mishandled the Macedonia question, underestimating the naked ferocity of Greek nationalism and sowing seeds of distrust among in his party, ultimately prompting some MPs to withdraw parliamentary support, thus triggering the elections. Greeks accuse neighbouring Macedonia of stealing their name and flag and of harbouring expansionist ambitions that include the Greek province of Macedonia.

Mr Mitsotakis dismissed his heir-apparent and Foreign Minister, Antonis Samaras, for his hardline stance on Macedonia. Mr Samaras then launched a new party, Political Spring, and plotted the downfall of the government. He seems to have won just under 5 pert cent of the votes in the election.

(Photograph omitted)