Socialists' big gamble pays off trounce opposition

Greek elections: Conservative opposition concedes defeat as voters accept Pasok's austerity
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Greece's Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, was on his way to a handsome general election victory last night as voters reluctantly swallowed his proposed package of austerity and responsible government after four weeks of unexpectedly close campaigning.

As the first official results came in, Mr Simitis's socialist party, Pasok, was credited with around 42 per cent of the vote, three percentage points ahead of his conservative rivals, New Democracy. Under Greece's system of "enhanced" proportional representation, which bolsters the strength of the leading party, that will enough to ensure Pasok a comfortable majority in the 300-seat parliament. Moreover, the interior ministry said that the gap would probably widen as the night went on.

The leader of the opposition, Miltiades Evert, was quick to acknowledge his defeat and said he was resigning as head of New Democracy. Both party leaders knew they had to win the election to shore up their shaky authority in their respective parties. New Democracy now looks headed for one of its periodic internecine wars in the struggle to succeed Mr Evert, while Mr Simitis will hope his victory will be convincing enough to silence those members of his party still nostalgic for the tub-thumping charisma of their founder, the late Andreas Papandreou.

Mr Simitis, 60, a commercial lawyer by training, with wide experience of government, emerged as Mr Papandreou's chief dissenter within Pasok and took over the premiership when ill health pushed Mr Papandreou out of politics in January.

He has spent most of his time since then battling to reconcile the dissenting voices within his government and the party at large, leaving little energy to put together a dynamic policy programme. He called the elections, more than a year early, to give himself a mandate for a tough austerity budget this autumn and put Greece on a more conciliatory track with its neighbours, especially Turkey.

Mr Simitis is widely respected in the business community and abroad, and at the outset of the campaign had looked the firm favourite. Mr Evert, a hitherto unimpressive political leader, provided some unexpectedly spirited competition, however, with a slick populist campaign that exploited all the weaknesses of Mr Simitis's aloof, uncharismatic manner.

For a country used to the grand political spectacle and non-stop drama once provided by Mr Papandreou, this never looked like more than a battle between dwarfs, and during the campaign voters leaned heavily towards smaller protest parties or else said they had not made up their minds.

The logic of the Greek electoral system dragged them back to the bigger parties, and the knowledge that Greece must pay the price of its past extravagance and corruption probably caused them to tip in favour of Mr Simitis.

There will almost certainly be a thorough cabinet reshuffle in the next few days to reflect the premier's renewed strength and iron out personality clashes. Theodoros Pangalos, the fiery Foreign Minister, is likely to go and the man tipped to replace him is George Papandreou, a Simitis loyalists and far gentler man than his father Andreas.