Clear victory for Papandreou in leadership contest

Opposition PASOK chief George Papandreou yesterday kept control of the Socialist party founded by his father, securing a clear victory in unprecedented leadership elections with about a third of votes counted late last night. According to partial results announced on private television, Papandreou garnered 55.9 percent of the votes, beating his main challenger Evangelos Venizelos, who amassed 37.4 percent, and exceeding the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a second round. The third candidate, Costas Skandalidis, got 6.5 percent of votes. The relief was palpable among Papandreou supporters following two months of fierce campaigning sparked by the leadership challenge by veteran PASOK cadre and former minister Venizelos. Some 900,000 supporters visited balloting centers across the country to cast their vote in a turnout that, PASOK cadres said, demonstrated the enduring support for the Socialist party, which suffered a heavy defeat in September’s general elections. The surprisingly high turnout led to the announcement of the final results being delayed by more than two hours as the centers struggled to tabulate data. The voting process was marred by technical problems. In some voting centers, a lack of computers meant that voters’ details had to be handwritten. There were also many instances of party members or «friends» – a loose category open to virtually anyone – not being recorded in the party’s electronic files. All the candidates sounded positive notes in interviews before casting their ballots. In Athens, Papandreou called the vote «a very large celebration of democracy.» «From tomorrow we will proceed with reforms and changes,» he said. In Thessaloniki, Venizelos was similarly upbeat. «Something is changing, both within PASOK and in the whole political system,» he said, adding that «citizens are turning a new page.» Skandalidis, the third challenger, expressed his hope that PASOK «would remain united» irrespective of the election result. Former PASOK leader and Prime Minister Costas Simitis also stressed the importance of unity, following fierce – and sometimes bitter – pre-election campaigning by Papandreou and Venizelos. «I hope the end of this procedure will find PASOK united and more efficient so that we can tackle the country’s problems,» Simitis said.