Greeks headed to the polls for the second time in less than two months on Sunday, with the conservative party in power a strong favorite to win with a wide majority after a campaign focused on economic growth and security.
The vote is overshadowed by a major shipwreck just over a week ago that left hundreds of migrants dead or missing off the coast of western Greece. But the disaster is unlikely to significantly affect the overall outcome, as Greeks are expected to focus on domestic economic issues.
Conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 55, is eyeing a second term as prime minister after his New Democracy party won by a huge margin in May elections — but fell short of gaining enough parliamentary seats to form a government. With a new electoral law now favoring the winning party with bonus seats, he is hoping to form a strong majority in the 300-member parliament.
His main rival is Alexis Tsipras, 48, who leads the left-wing Syriza party and served as prime minister from 2015 to 2019 — some of the most turbulent years of Greece’s nearly decade-long financial crisis.
Tsipras fared dismally in the May elections, coming a distant second, 20 percentage points behind New Democracy. He has since been trying to rally his voter base, a task complicated by splinter parties formed by some of his former associates.
Speaking after voting in a western Athens neighborhood, Tsipras seemed to accept his party would be in opposition for the next four years.
“This crucial election is not only determining who will govern the country, it is determining our lives for the next four years, it is determining the quality of our democracy,” Tsipras said. “It is determining whether we will have an unchecked government or a strong opposition. This role can only be played by Syriza.”
Sunday’s vote comes after hundreds of migrants died and went missing in southern Greece when an overcrowded fishing trawler heading from Libya to Italy capsized and sank. The shipwreck drew criticism over how Greek authorities handled the rescue, as well as over the country’s restrictive migration policy.
But the disaster, one of the worst in the Mediterranean in recent years, has done little to dent Mitsotakis’ 20-point lead in opinion polls over Tsipras, with the economy at the forefront of most voters’ concerns. As Greece gradually recovers from its brutal financial crisis, voters appear happy to return to power a prime minister who delivered economic growth and lowered unemployment.
“Our expectations are that the country will continue the path of development that it has had in recent years,” said insurance company employee Konstantinos, who arrived early in the morning at a polling station in northern Athens with his newly-wed bride Marietta, still in her wedding dress, straight from their wedding reception. He asked that his surname not be used.
Another early morning voter, Sofia Oikonomopoulou, said she hoped the winning party on Sunday would have enough parliamentary seats to form a government “so that the country will not suffer any more.”
“We hope for better days, for justice, a health system, education, that everything will go better and that the Greek truly will be able to live a better life through these elections,” she said.
Mitsotakis, a Harvard graduate, comes from one of Greece’s most prominent political families. His late father, Constantine Mitsotakis, served as prime minister in the 1990s, his sister served as foreign minister and his nephew is the current mayor of Athens. The younger Mitsotakis has vowed to rebrand Greece as a pro-business and fiscally responsible euro zone member.
The strategy, so far, has worked. New Democracy routed left-wing opponents in May, crucially winning Socialist strongholds on the island of Crete and lower-income areas surrounding Athens, some for the first time.
“We are voting so people can have a stable government for the next four years,” Mitsotakis said after voting in northern Athens. “I am sure that Greeks will vote with maturity for their personal prosperity and the country’s stability.”
Trailing in opinion polls and on the back of his particularly poor showing in the May vote, Tsipras finds himself fighting for his political survival. His campaign in the runup to the previous elections was deemed by many as being too negative, focusing too heavily on scandals that hit the Mitsotakis government late in its term.
Despite the scandals, which included revelations of wiretapping targeting senior politicians and journalists, and a deadly Feb. 28 train crash that exposed poor safety measures, Tsipras failed to make any significant gains against Mitsotakis.
Whether the conservative leader will manage to form a government, and how strong it will be, could depend on how many parties make it past the 3% threshold to enter parliament. As many as nine parties have a realistic chance, ranging from ultra-religious groups to two left-wing splinter parties founded by top former members of the Syriza government.
In May elections, held under a proportional representation system, Mitsotakis’ party fell five seats short, and he decided not to try to form a coalition government, preferring instead to take his chances with a second election.
Sunday’s vote is being held under an electoral system that grants a bonus of between 25 and 50 seats to the winning party, depending on its performance, which makes it easier for a party to win more than the required 151 seats in the 300-member parliament to form a government.
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