Venizelos takes over PASOK as elections loom

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos on Monday quit his ministry post and assumed the leadership of Socialist PASOK after drawing a larger-than-expected turnout in Sunday?s election for a new party chief but it remained unclear late on Monday night who would replace him at the helm of the ministry.

A total of 236,151 members and supporters of PASOK cast their votes in the one-man race on Sunday night at least double the figure that party officials had said would be satisfactory. Despite fears that a significant proportion of disaffected party supporters would cast blank ballots in protest, more than 97 percent voted for Venizelos, according to PASOK officials.

Venizelos appeared buoyed by the outcome in his meetings yesterday with President Karolos Papoulias and Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, to whom he tendered his resignation, claiming that the party?s base was still strong.

Following a handover from outgoing PASOK chief and former Premier George Papandreou, Venizelos pledged to ?rebuild the country? and restore in citizens ?the certainty that they will not go through what they have been through again, that the same mistakes will not be made.?

For his part, Papandreou pledged to continue backing the party that his father founded, adding that he planned to set up an educational institute.

Sources said party officials had interpreted Sunday night?s outcome as an indication that PASOK, which is trailing in opinion polls, would regain lost ground in general elections expected in late April or early May.

Before then Venizelos must rally his party. He is to hold his first session with MPs this afternoon and is expected to set out his policy and appeal to party dissenters to return to the fold. He is said to be forming a team that will work closely with him in the countdown to elections and which will include close allies such as Health Minister Andreas Loverdos and Citizens? Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis. In addition, a separate team comprising the 14 members of the party?s political council and another 30 or so high-ranking MPs is expected to be formed.

It remained unclear late last night who would replace Venizelos as finance minister, though sources suggested it was more likely to be one of Venizelos?s deputies or Interior Minister Tassos Yiannitsis than Papademos.

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