Greek voters give nod to further reforms

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Costas Simitis, Greece's unassuming prime minister kept his job, eking out the slimmest of victories over rival Costas Karamanlis in Sunday's election.

Yesterday, Mr. Simitis was already looking ahead to "a new cycle of reform, of change." He pledged to continue the steady modernizing program he has used to bring Greece to the brink of membership in the euro zone (using the euro currency) and to improve relations with rival neighbor Turkey.

His party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) won 158 seats in the 300-strong parliament, and how far he succeeds depends on the support within his party. Old-style PASOK socialists put the brakes on many of the Simitis reform initiatives in the old parliament, and he was once forced to call for a confidence vote to bring dissenters into line.

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Greek media also speculated that Simitis's narrow, 1-percentage-point win was a wake-up call for PASOK that voters wanted more change, and quicker. "The election message is clear: No more delays are allowed," analyst Yannis Kartalis wrote in To Vima. His victory was said to confirm the wishes of the population, that short-term sacrifices and structural reforms were preferred if the country was to keep pace with the rest of Europe.

"In policy terms, continuity and economic reform are clearly a priority," said a European Union diplomat.

Simitis loyalists say he will now turn his attention to deep reform. He left behind the welfare policies of his predecessor, Andreas Papandreou, and moved ahead with privatizations and a tight fiscal policy. The effort has paid off and Greece is expected to become the 12th European Union country to join the euro zone as of next year.

In the next four years, Simitis will have his work cut out for him. Aside from normalizing relations with neighboring Turkey, he will have to tackle an unemployment rate slightly above the 11 percent mark, revamp the national health care system and the state pension system.

"We will improve the social-welfare system and fight against rising unemployment," Simitis said. "I call all Greeks to join our calls to arms, far away from party conflict, for our common goals for a strong, modern, and socially just Greece. A Greece on the front line of the European Union."

Simitis has taken great strides, but even bigger ones are needed if the country is to play hard ball with the rest of Europe. So far, he appears to be master of the game.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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