Two main parties running neck and neck in Greek election campaign

Greece closed its longest ever general election campaign yesterday with pundits predicting the race would be the closest since…

Greece closed its longest ever general election campaign yesterday with pundits predicting the race would be the closest since the return of democracy in 1974.

As the outgoing Greek Prime Minister, Mr Costas Simitis, addressed a raucous rally in Athens last night, polls showed the two main parties running neck and neck.

Analysts are describing tomorrow's election as a "last-lap thriller".

The outcome, they say, will almost certainly boil down to voters "flipping a coin" before they go into the ballot booth.


"The result would be determined literally on the day in the last 24 hours," according to Pavlos Tsimas , a leading political commentator. "Greece, to be sure, has not seen anything like it since the collapse of the colonels' regime 25 years ago."

The thrilling climax caps a campaign that has filled more column inches for its lack of colour, noise, passion and appeal than any other. For the first time, banners and bunting were banned. Instead of party cadres and fiery protesters, it was prostitutes, feminists and disgruntled investors at the Athens Stock Exchange who took to the streets. Not so long ago, Greeks were the West's most politicised people, and the Greek capital rang to the sound of almost daily demonstrations.

"People here have realised that in a united Europe it doesn't make a great difference who wins," says Nikos Dimou, author of the best-seller The Misfortune to be Greek. "We are a small country that is totally dependent on the EU and, as such, there is very little the national government can do.

It is ironic that in a nation that still harbours vivid memories of a brutal 1946-49 civil war, there is little that now divides the left and right. Under Mr Simitis, the left has been buried, along with the governing Pasok party's once beloved ideology of generous patronage and social spending; Under Mr Costas Karamanalis, leader of New Democracy, the conservatives have moved centre stage, even quoting labour forces that once made up the backbone of traditional socialist support.

But analysts believe the electoral result could be more important than most people think. Greece's 8.9 million voters are now faced with the choice of re-electing Pasok, and insuring more of the foreign policies that have bought unprecedented peace and friendship with Turkey, or opting for the New Democrats, who take a more hawkish stance with Athens's traditional NATO rival. Indeed, there are fears the result could usher in the end of the extraordinary rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, who have almost gone to war three times since clashing over Cyprus in 1974.

"Greek-Turkish relations may not have been much of an issue during the campaign, but they could certainly become one after it," said a senior aide to the Greek Foreign Minister, Mr George Papandreou, who is widely seen as the architect of the reconciliation efforts. In the past year, on the back of the popular sympathy which followed devastating earthquakes in both countries, Athens and Ankara have signed a host of historic agreements.

Without a strong mandate it is unlikely the socialists will be able to pursue freely the conciliatory policies that have brought the rare bout of peace to the eastern Mediterranean.

Mr Simitis, who has been credited with reforms that have brought Greece into line with its much richer EU partners, called the election five months ahead of schedule. It was, he said, imperative his government be given a mandate to negotiate Greece's entry into the single European currency later this year.

At first, pundits thought the race would be won easily by Pasok, which has been in power for 16 of the past 19 years. Polls showed the socialists leading by a comfortable 2.5 per cent for several weeks. However complacency, combined with allegations of arrogance in power and a bad run on the Athens Bourse - where two in every 10 Greeks are said to have invested - soon reversed the ruling party's fortunes.

With as many as 13 per cent undecided, every last vote will count. Last night, as Mr Simitis spoke to Athenians for what could be his last time as prime minister, his party was busy flying in voters from across the globe to try and keep him in power.