Greece faces new election in weeks, after center right triumphs but falls short of majority

Elections could come as soon as June 25, after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis confirmed he wouldn’t try to build a coalition government despite having dominated the ballot hours earlier by the most decisive margin in half a century

Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy conservative party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks outside the party's headquarters, after the general election, in Athens, Greece, May 21, 2023.LOUIZA VRADI (REUTERS)

Greece faces new national elections as early as June 25, with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis confirming Monday he would not try to build a coalition government — despite having dominated the ballot hours earlier by the most decisive margin in half a century.

It was a tantalizing result for the center-right leader: although Mitsotakis slightly expanded his New Democracy party’s standing, getting double the votes of leftwing Syriza and nearly four times those of third-place Socialist Pasok, the one-off electoral law in place Sunday denied him a governing majority.

He’ll now pin his hopes on a second vote — expected no later than July 2 — where the electoral system will revert to boosting the first party with a bonus of up to 50 of Parliament’s 300 seats. That system would have secured ND more than 170 seats Sunday.

With 99.70% of the votes counted, New Democracy has 40.79% and 146 seats, five short of a majority, winning in 58 of the country’s 59 constituencies. Syriza got 20.07% and 71 seats, while Pasok came in third at 11.46%. Turnout was 61%.

ND’s margin of victory far outstripped pollsters’ forecasts and was the biggest since 1974, when Greece’s first democratic elections were held after the fall of the seven-year military dictatorship.

Athenian Fotis Hatzos said that while he had expected ND’s win, its hammering of the main opposition party took him by surprise.

“What is there to say? (Mitsotakis) destroyed them,” he told The Associated Press. “He won fairly.”

Markets welcomed what seems to signal the end of the political uncertainty that troubled the NATO and European Union member following the 2009-2018 financial crisis, with the Athens stock exchange general index surging more than 7% Monday and Greek bonds rallying.

Mitsotakis, 55, met Monday with President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who formally gave him the mandate to try and form a government. But the Harvard-educated former banking executive said there would be no point.

“I can effectively see no way for the current parliament to form a government,” he said in a brief televised exchange. “That is why I will return the mandate to you this afternoon, so that we can head for new elections... as soon as possible, perhaps even on June 25... The country needs a strong and stable government with a four-year mandate, and as soon as this is settled the better.”

Several hours after the meeting, the invitation was formally returned by the prime minister. The mandate will now pass to Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, and then to Pasok leader Nikos Androulakis — neither of whom has any realistic chance of success. Each will have a maximum of three days to try to form a coalition. Once all options are exhausted, a senior judge will be appointed caretaker prime minister and new elections called.

Mitsotakis had long suggested he would not seek a coalition partner, whatever the election outcome, in the interest of stable governance. Greece has little tradition of successful coalition governments, despite a series of forced matches during the fraught years of financial crisis.

Analyst Wolfango Piccoli, who has followed Greek politics for years, said voters on Sunday prioritized the economy and political stability over everything else.

“ND’s overwhelming performance is largely due to the positive track record on the economic front of the past four years,” the senior political risk analyst at Teneo told the AP. “Syriza’s inability to convey a coherent and credible economic plan also helped PM Mitsotakis and his ND.”

“The outcome of yesterday’s vote creates a window of opportunity for Greece to turn the page and move away from the toxic populist politics that emerged during” the financial crisis, he added.

Mitsotakis came to power in 2019 on a promise of business-oriented reforms and has vowed to continue tax cuts, boost investment, bolster middle-class employment and further raise wages. His victory is widely expected to spur an upgrade of Greece’s key credit rating to investment grade, which it lost in 2010. That would strongly boost the country’s ability to borrow from international markets, broadening its bonds’ appeal to investors and gilding the economic outlook.

Mitsotakis has been credited with Greece’s successful handling of the pandemic and of two crises with neighboring Turkey, while overseeing high growth and job creation. His term in office was tarnished by a wiretapping scandal and a railway disaster, but opposition efforts to capitalize on both fizzled.

Tsipras, 48, called Mitsotakis on Sunday night to congratulate him.

In a video message Monday, Tsipras inisted he was not considering stepping down in the wake of his party’s major defeat. “I have learned in my life not to flee from the battle,” he said.

Tsipras, who was prime minister from 2015 to 2019 — riding a wave of anti-establishment feeling amid the financial crisis — said his party would gather to examine the results and how they came about. “However, the electoral cycle is not yet over,” he said. “We must immediately carry out all the changes that are needed so we can fight the next crucial and final electoral battle with the best terms possible.”

Tsipras transformed Syriza from a political minnow into Greece’s main leftwing political pole during the financial crisis, when he won office pledging to reverse resented cutbacks dictated by international creditors. Instead, he was quickly forced to impose further financial pain in return for a new rescue loan.

Now, his political future beyond the forthcoming election remains unclear, particulalrly if it confirms the trend set Sunday when Syriza lost about 11 percentage points compared to its showing in 2019.

Pasok leader Androulakis, however, was buoyant, seeing his party claw back some of the ground it lost to Syriza in the crisis — before which it traditionally dominated Greece’s center-left. The communist party posted gains, as did a small right-wing anti-immigration party.

Analyst Piccoli said the “devastating blow” suffered by Syriza and the failure of smaller leftwing parties to enter parliament “suggest that voters are determined to look ahead and leave behind the painful recent memories of the economic crisis.”

“It remains to be seen whether Pasok will be up for the challenge of regaining a central role on the left side of Greek politics now that Syriza is on the back foot,” he said.

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