Parliament was expected to vote on the 2004 general state budget in the early hours of this morning, after a heated five-day debate in which the leader of the main opposition party called for early elections. Party leaders also challenged Prime Minister Costas Simitis to take a stand on rumors that he might be handing over the leadership of his PASOK party. Simitis was expected to speak just before the roll-call vote began at midnight. It was not clear whether he would mention the rumors, which he has denied through the government spokesman in the past, apparently not wanting to lend them credibility. PASOK has 156 seats in the 300-member Parliament and was expected to approve the budget, in what is traditionally seen as a vote of confidence in the government. Speaking shortly before Simitis, opposition leader Costas Karamanlis, whose New Democracy party is leading PASOK by 7-8 percent in opinion polls, said that his party would vote against the budget, which it criticizes as lacking credibility. «This is the last budget of the government of lost opportunities,» he declared. «We vote against the budget. But the uncertainty cannot continue,» he said, referring to the rumors of a leadership change. «We don’t care about your inner party workings, but there are issues that are raised by this. Is the government paralyzed?» Karamanlis asked. «The prime minister must do what he has preached for years: Seek clear solutions. And the only clear solution is immediate elections,» he declared. National Economy and Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis said that in his speech Karamanlis had made «an outlandish effort to support the choice of harsh measures» that ND would enforce if elected. Communist Party General Secretary Aleka Papariga said that the only winners from the budget would be «plutocrats» because there was no redistribution of capital other than within social strata. Synaspismos Left Coalition leader Nikos Constantopoulos demanded that Simitis make clear where he stood on the succession rumors. The budget is based on the expectation of 4.2 percent growth in GDP in 2004, from 4 percent this year, and a deficit of 1.2 percent, from 1.4 percent this year. The government says Greece’s growth rate will be the highest in Europe next year and unemployment will drop from 9 percent this year to 8 percent in 2004. The public debt is forecast to drop to 98.5 percent of GDP, from 101.7 percent in 2003. Inflation is expected to remain high, at 3.5 percent. Revenues are forecast to rise by 6.2 percent and spending by 6.9 percent.