Greeks vote in local runoffs as debt fears rise

Greeks voted Sunday in runoffs for local elections as the crisis-hit nation faced renewed pressure to reduce overspending.

The vote follows a first round Nov. 7 that gave the governing Socialists a slim lead over conservatives who campaigned against the terms of a euro110 billion ($140 billion) bailout loan agreement with the IMF and European Union.

After polls closed at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), initial returns indicated that a Socialist-backed candidate emerged as the front-runner in a race for regional governor of greater Athens.

The Socialists were also poised for a possible upset in the election for mayor of Athens, a post which has been held by the conservatives since 1987.

"It appears we'll have a late count in the big cities, but it's too early to make a general estimate," Finance Minister George Papanconstantinou told private Antenna television.

The EU on Monday is expected to announce an upward revision of Greek budget deficit figures, including for the year 2009, while officials from the EU and IMF are due in Athens for another inspection of cost-cutting efforts.

In a weekend newspaper interview, Prime Minister George Papandreou said Greece could seek an extension for repaying the rescue loan, and conceded the deficit revision would add pressure on his government to cut costs.

"It's like running a marathon, and finding out during the race that they have added more kilometers to the course," he told the Proto Thema newspaper.

The government had billed the local government poll as a key test of popular support for his government's austerity program, which has included pay cuts for pensioners and civil servants. But last Sunday, Papandreou dropped a threat to call an early general election after the Socialists took the lead in the local polls to elect mayors and 13 new regional governors.

Last week's first round, the Socialists won two governors' races outright, and led in greater Athens and four other regions.

The conservatives were ahead in six regions, as well as in several high-profile mayoral races. About 9.8 million people are eligible to vote.

Papandreou made no mention of austerity Sunday after voting near his north Athens home.

"Today we are called to elect capable mayors and regional governors ... who will help us emerge from the crisis on our own steam," he said.

But conservative leader Antonis Samaras — wooing first-round voters who backed left-wing parties — described Sunday's vote as a one-time chance for Greeks to express their discontent.

"No one tomorrow will be able to pretend that they didn't hear or didn't understand the resounding message from the Greek people calling for a change in course," Samaras said after voting.

The November elections are the first following far-reaching changes in Greek local government that reduced the number of municipalities from 1,014 to 325, provided for elected regional governors and regional councils and will extend the terms of mayors and governors from four to five years.