Papandreou calls for new elections. Greek prime minister hopes to catch the opposition off-balance

Faced with declining popular support and intense pressure from the conservative opposition, Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou is seeking an early election. The term of the current parliament was due to run out in October. The election, which must be called by President Christos Sartzetakis, will likely be held between June 9 and 16.

According to political and diplomatic sources in Athens, two factors pushed Mr. Papandreou to seek the early election.

His popular support has diminished in the past year. According to polls, Papandreou's lead over the conservative opposition, the New Democracy Party, has fallen to between 1 and 4 percent.

Centrists have become increasingly disenchanted with the prime minister's economic policies, which they blame for the country's near 20 percent inflation, 8 percent unemployment, limited economic growth, and accumulating domestic and foreign debt.

And they are concerned that his maverick, often pro-Soviet rhetoric on foreign policy threatens to undermine the country's traditional alliances.

Until the European Community's Council of Ministers agreed last weekend to provide Greece with a multibillion dollar economic aid package over the next seven years, Papandreou had no concrete foreign policy success to his credit.

The pro-Moscow Communist Party, the smaller Euro-communists, and leftists in Papandreou's own Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) were angered by what they view as the prime minister's lack of commitment to more radical changes.

In recent months, the communists have launched withering attacks on Papandreou, accusing him of being a ``right winger'' and a traitor to the cause of change. They also used their power in the trade unions to encourage a series of nagging strikes.

On March 9, Papandreou reversed his pledge to back former President Constantine Karamanlis for a second five-year term and declared his intention to reform the Constitution, stripping the presidency of most of its powers. Both decisions generated deep enthusiasm on the left and threw the communists off balance.

According to sources in PASOK, to wait until October for elections might allow that enthusiasm to subside and might help the communists regain the offensive. In addition, Papandreou's support among center voters might erode even further.

The prime minister's March 9 initiatives and the conservative opposition's refusal to recognize the election of Mr. Sartzetakis, which they say was won unconstitutionally, has eclipsed all other domestic and foreign issues.

Since becoming the leader of the New Democracy Party seven months ago, former Foreign Minister Constantine Mitsotakis has repeatedly said that immediate elections are the only solution to the country's political, constitutional, and economic crises. He has moved to modernize his party and has adopted new, neo-liberal slogans and policies.

His pacts and agricultural reform proposals, which were generally well received, caught the government off guard.

Political sources say an early election might allow Papandreou to avoid troublesome domestic and international issues, concentrating instead on his constitutional reforms and the validity of Sartzetakis's election.

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