Socialists ahead in crucial Greek local elections

Socialists ahead in crucial Greek local elections

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists were leading Sunday in regional elections, seen as a referendum on austerity measures imposed by the government to ward off bankruptcy, dpa reported.

Partial official results in eight of 13 races for regional governor, including the greater Athens area, the country's largest administrative region, showed the Socialists to be ahead, making it less likely that Papandreou will call early national elections.

The Socialists, who hold a comfortable parliamentary majority, have passed a wave of austerity measures such as wage and pension cuts and consumer tax increases in exchange for an international bailout package.

Papandreou had not ruled out an early national election if his party failed to win a clear backing in Sunday's vote, saying the government needed a mandate to implement the austerity measures and bring the country's finances back on track.

The Socialists, along with the main opposition conservatives, were lagging in opinion polls and reports indicated the most likely outcome of a snap vote would be a coalition government or a slim majority for the winner. Both scenarios would pose a problem for the government to put its finances in order.

Nearly 10 million citizens and immigrants were eligible to vote Sunday. The second round will be held on November 14.

Greece is not due for another election until 2013. If Papandreou decides to call a snap vote it would take place within 30 days of the dissolution of parliament. Reports have said it could be held on December 12.

The southern Mediterranean country is required to slash spending and restructure large parts of its economy in exchange for the 110- billion-euro rescue plan funded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union.

Athens has pledged to trim its budget deficit to below the EU- mandated limit of 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2014. To achieve this it has slashed civil servants' pay, cut pensions and increased consumer taxes. It had also promised to restructure loss- making state companies and reform its labour market.

Meanwhile, police have increased surveillance and patrols across the country fearing violence at polling stations after a wave of failed parcel bomb attacks earlier this week blamed on left-wing militant groups.

Greece may be forced to commit to further cost-cutting measures next month when the EU's statistics agency, Eurostat, is expected to revise the country's 2009 deficit to 15 per cent of GDP from the current projection of 13.6 per cent.

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