Greece’s Finance Minister takes over Socialist Party

The finance minister of Greece, Evangelos Venizelos, assumed the leadership of the country’s embattled Socialist Party, known as Pasok, on Sunday as the country’s political parties prepared to face austerity-weary voters in a general election that is expected in late April or early May.

Mr. Venizelos took the reins from George A. Papandreou, who was prime minister until his government fell at the height of the country’s financial crisis last November. Mr. Venizelos, who mounted a strong but unsuccessful challenge to Mr. Papandreou for the party leadership in 2007, was unopposed this time after two rivals failed to attract adequate backing to run. The leader is chosen by a vote of the party’s members and supporters in what amounts to a national primary.

Mr. Venizelos was expected to give up his ministry post on Monday, either to one of his several deputies or to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, following a formal handover of the party post from Mr. Papandreou.

In a speech on Greek television shortly after the polls closed Sunday evening, Mr. Venizelos described the election as “a successful exercise in political readiness” and said that he would lead his party to “rebirth” and Greece to recovery. “Already, our country is at that crucial stage between the crisis and the now-palpable prospects for emerging from it,” he said.

Pasok, for decades the largest party in Greece with 40 percent of the vote or more in most elections, has seen its support plummet since the financial crisis took hold. The party took most of the blame for the painful rounds of austerity measures enacted in exchange for aid and debt relief from foreign creditors. Many of the measures fell most harshly on important parts of Pasok’s political base — public-sector workers — and amid the bitter internal rancor over the measures, the party expelled several members of Parliament who broke ranks during voting.

In the end, completing the aid and debt deals and passing a new national budget required the formation of a unity coalition with Pasok’s main rival, the conservative New Democracy Party, and the appointment of an interim prime minister, Mr. Papademos, who will leave office after the general election.

Analysts said on Sunday that the turnout in the party leadership vote, conducted at thousands of polling places set up in city halls, cafes, even gas stations, was higher than expected. Still, under Mr. Venizelos, 55, a powerful orator, the party will have a lot of lost ground to regain. The Greek left is badly splintered, and disgust with the country’s deepening recession, spiraling unemployment and dysfunctional politics runs so high that as many as one-third of voters plan to abstain or cast blank ballots in the general election, according to recent polls.

The latest survey, conducted by telephone March 8-13 by Public Issue, put Pasok in fifth place with the support of 11 percent of respondents, far behind New Democracy with 25 percent. The poll had a sample size of 1,010 and a three-percentage-point margin of error.

Three other left-wing parties that oppose the austerity measures drew more support than Pasok in the poll: the moderate Democratic Left with 15 percent, the radical Syriza with 12 percent and the Communists with 11 percent.

If the general election results were to match that poll, nine parties would qualify for seats in Parliament, compared with five now, making the assembly of a governing coalition much more complex, especially on the left. This was reported by New York Times.