Final stretch to elections begins today

Party politics resume as normal today, as the leaders of both major political parties return from their holidays preparing for what is generally considered as the final stretch toward national elections. How long that final stretch could last depends entirely on Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who arrived back from Sifnos yesterday. National elections do not have to be held until early May 2004, at the latest, but the PM could advance the date by invoking «serious issues of national importance» according to the constitution. The most serious issue confronting Greece at the moment are the preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Simitis will underscore this importance today, by visiting the huge urban landscaping works at Faliron, including the beach volleyball arena, and the Sailing Center at Aghios Cosmas. While politicians of both the ruling socialists and the conservative opposition agree that Olympic preparations should be kept out of the political arena, Simitis may well be tempted to use them, and the fact that many infrastructure projects are set to be completed next spring, as a weapon in the coming elections. The PM must also provide enough promises in his speech at the Thessaloniki International Fair early next month to attract votes from people who have deserted his party – including farmers and low-income earners – without appearing to renege on a commitment to lower the country’s enormous debt. Government sources say Simitis will wait for the impact of his Thessaloniki speech to be shown in the next opinion poll, toward the end of next month, before deciding whether to call early elections or tough it out until the last possible moment. Government officials also pin hopes on the continuing revival of the Athens Stock Exchange to attract voters and to reverse New Democracy’s steady opinion poll lead. The challenge for ND leader Costas Karamanlis will be to avoid seeming to be sitting on his poll lead and waiting for voters to oust the socialists, a tactic that backfired at the last elections. Karamanlis is preparing his own Thessaloniki speech, where he will present part of ND’s program.