Lawmakers were expected last night to vote in favor of launching a preliminary judicial inquiry that would look into the role of former conservative Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis in the alleged blackmail of a shipowner. Deputies were due to vote at midnight on whether to set up a committee to investigate the affair, as MPs are immune to prosecution and can only be probed by Parliament. New Democracy MPs had been told to vote according to their conscience and it was expected that this would give the motion enough support to pass. Pavlidis denies allegations that he and his assistant demanded under-the-table payments from shipowner Fotis Manousis to grant him subsidized contracts for ferry routes to remote islands. During the debate last night ahead of the secret ballot, Pavlidis defended himself vehemently, saying that he had simply enforced a law passed by the previous PASOK government that governs the way that contracts for unprofitable routes are awarded. The mood within the government was somber yesterday, as ND officials, who fear the negative publicity that would accompany an inquiry, pondered how to deal with the situation, given that Pavlidis appears to have no intention of standing down. Sources close to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis rejected claims that the government was trying to strike a deal with the ex-minister. They also denied that the premier is considering the option of calling early elections. It seems that the government is prepared to see out the expected inquiry, which is due to be completed by the end of the month, before taking any decisions.