A deadline for the government’s 157 MPs to declare whether they wanted to defend their seats during the forthcoming national elections expired yesterday with all but 17 responding in the affirmative. Prime Minister Costas Simitis dismissed speculation that the result pointed to weaknesses within PASOK, and said the party would be better off without the 17 – among whom is former Public Order and Education Minister Stelios Papathemelis, who resigned from the party but insisted on staying on in the 300-seat Parliament as an independent. «I am not the least bit afraid that this will harm the party,» Simitis said. «Regarding the very few who disagree, the fact that they are leaving is useful for themselves and for the party… Ahead of the elections, we want a clear, united and rejuvenated front.» Today, the PM will address the party’s Central Committee, which is due to draw up PASOK’s tickets for the polls, expected to take place in late April or early May. The Socialists are trailing opposition New Democracy in opinion polls.