Economy outweighs polls fillip

Following relative success in the second round of local elections, which saw PASOK win the most regions and municipalities of all the parties, the government came back down to earth with a bump yesterday as the upward revision of Greece’s 2009 deficit was confirmed and Prime Minister George Papandreou argued it might be a good idea for Athens to be given longer to repay its emergency loans. An encouraging night for PASOK was capped off early yesterday when it was confirmed that Yiannis Boutaris, the independent candidate it had backed in Thessaloniki, edged out New Democracy’s Costas Gioulekas. This meant that both Athens and Thessaloniki, cities that had been controlled by the conservatives since the mid-1980s, had passed over to the control of independents that PASOK supported. PASOK also won eight of 13 regions, narrowly missing a ninth in the Ionian Islands. Significantly, its candidate for Attica governor, Yiannis Sgouros, beat ND’s Vassilis Kikilias to take control of the region where a quarter of Greek voters live. For the conservatives, there was consolation in taking control of the Municipality of Piraeus and in seeing their candidate, Panayiotis Psomiadis, dominate in the election for governor in Central Macedonia, Greece’s second-largest region in terms of voters. PASOK also won 92 of the 325 municipalities. ND took control of 52. The remainder were won by independent candidates or hopefuls backed by other parties or a combination of groupings. However, the fact that the turnout was no greater than 47 percent overall and as low as 33 percent in some municipalities meant that no single party could claim true victory in these elections. Papandreou dwelt on the poll results only briefly, saying that «social alliances» like those that led to Kaminis and Boutaris being elected could be something that is applied to government as well. «I am always open to these ideas,» he told journalists. The premier then had to switch his attention to economic issues as Eurostat, the European Union statistics agency, confirmed Greece’s deficit for 2009 was being revised upward to 15.4 percent of gross domestic product. This means Greece will not achieve its target of reducing debt to 8.1 percent of GDP by the end of the year. This figure is now expected to be 9.4 percent of GDP, meaning that further cuts are likely to be made next year. Eurostat’s announcement came as Papandreou traveled to Paris, where he chaired a meeting of Socialist International and met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Greek leader used his meeting with Sarkozy as an opportunity to again air the idea of Athens being given an extension to its repayment schedule for the 110 billion euros it is borrowing from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. «A repayment extension lightens the debt burden but also gives markets some security [about loans being repaid],» Papandreou said. Papandreou was also critical of German proposals to create a mechanism that would let governments default on part of their debt, forcing bond holders to take what is known as a «haircut.» «It created a spiral of higher interest rates for the countries that seemed to be in a vulnerable position, such as Ireland and Portugal,» he said. «But this could break backs. It could force people into bankruptcy.» Independents ring changes in Athens, Thessaloniki The most surprising victories in Sunday’s second round of voting went to two independent candidates – both with little experience fo politics and both backed by ruling PASOK and smaller left-wing parties – who will head the municipal authorities of the country’s two main cities as of January 1. The election of former Ombudsman Giorgos Kaminis and of winemaker Yiannis Boutaris as mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki respectively came as a much-needed boon to PASOK as the municipal authorities in both cities have been controlled by conservative New Democracy for more than 20 years. Despite being a clear outsider in the race for Athens mayor, Kaminis surged ahead of his rival, incumbent Nikitas Kaklamanis, late on Sunday evening and secured victory with 51.95 percent of votes compared to Kaklamanis’s 48.05 percent. Acknowledging the low turnout at the polls, Kaminis said his first challenge would be «to transform abstention into active participation» and pledged to turn Athens into «a place of freedom, responsibility and solidarity.» The race in Thessaloniki was much closer, with Boutaris’s victory only becoming clear in the early hours of Monday. The idiosyncratic businessman, who has already crossed swords with the outspoken bishop of Thessaloniki, Anthimos, snatched the mayoral seat with 50.15 percent of votes, just fractions of a percent ahead of his conservative-backed rival Costas Gioulekas. With just over 300 votes separating the two candidates, Gioulekas demanded a recount. Boutaris said his vision for transforming Thessaloniki «was not born in the corridors of party political power but in the streets, in the neighborhoods.»