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Venizelos to lead Greek Socialist party

Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek finance minister, will run unopposed for the leadership of the country's Socialist party, officials have confirmed.

Venizelos, 55, has won the backing of the PASOK party's leaders and appears to be a certainty to lead the party after a poll, open to both members of the party and the public, on March 18.

First on his agenda will be a parliamentary election, to be held in late April or early May. PASOK has been trailing the conservative New Democracy party in opinion polls in the run-up to that election.

"Our country is at a crucial juncture and as a result a very large number of PASOK officials have supported my candidacy," Venizelos told a party conference at which his only potential rival, former minister and EU commissioner, Christos Papoutsis, dropped out after failing to secure sufficient backing.

Also on Venizelos's agenda, as finance minister, will be managing the country's debt crisis response through a bond swap deal secured last week.

A pensioner on crutches hurled yoghurt at the minister during Sunday's PASOK press conference, a reminder of the deep unpopularity of the austerity measures he has overseen during his nine months in office.

Default averted

Greece averted an uncontrolled default on Thursday when it struck a debt exchange deal with private creditors that would allow a $171bn [131bn euro] bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund to go forward later this month.

Venizelos, a constitutional expert turned politician, was the principal negotiator during those talks.

Greece's second EU/IMF-led bailout in two years will bring to an end the term of the country's current technocratic coalition government, led by Lucas Papademos, the prime minister.

The government was formed in November with the mandate of concluding bailout talks and holding elections, replacing a government led by George Papandreou, the current PASOK leader.

Both PASOK and the New Democracy back Papademos and the austerity measures he took to obtain the bailout. That has cost them dearly in the run-up to the election, which is unlikely to produce an outright winner as small, left-wing, anti-austerity parties gain at their expense.

Conservatives ambitious

Antonis Samaras, Conservative leader, reiterated on Sunday his party's intention to seek an absolute majority in the Greek parliament.

"The country can't be governed without one," he told party members. "I wouldn't have negotiating power abroad".

While most polls show that New Democracy is firmly in the lead, it is well short of the support required to rule on its own. Analysts expect it to form a coalition with PASOK.

"What's required is a coalition, because it's likely to be a coalition. There's really no one party that will gain enough votes to lead outright. So what we need to see is a coalition that will take the tough measures required," Louise Cooper, a market analyst at BGC partners, said.

"But, to be quite honest, a lot of Greece's sovereignty has already been handed over to Brussels and to the IMF. It's not Greek politicians that are effectively determining taxation and spending policy anymore."

Elections will be held at some point after April 29, Pantelis Kapsis, a government spokesman, said late on Friday.

Samaras said on Sunday that they will be held "after Easter", which in Greece falls on April 15.

Promises to fulfil

Regardless of who wins the poll, Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German finance minister, said that the Greek government would be expected to fulfil its promises to the EU and IMF.

"Greece must stick to its obligations after the election. That's the basis for the [bailout] programme," he said in an interview with Greek newspaper To Vima, published on Saturday.

Austerity measures linked to the country's first EU/IMF bailout in 2010 have tipped the Greek economy into its worst slump since the second world war. The country is currently in its fifth year of recession.

New data released on Friday showed that the country's gross domestic product shrank by seven per cent in 2011.

Unemployment is currently at 21 per cent, and more than half of the country's young people are out of work.

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