Polls have opened in Greece’s parliamentary elections, the first since the country’s economy ceased to be subject to strict monitoring and control by international lenders who had provided bailout funds during its nearly decade-long financial crisis.
The two main contenders in Sunday’s vote are conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 55, a Harvard-educated former bank executive, and Alexis Tsipras, 48, who leads the left-wing Syriza party and served as prime minister during some of the most turbulent years of the financial crisis.
Although Mitsotakis has been steadily ahead in the polls, a newly introduced proportional representation electoral system makes it unlikely that whoever wins the election will be able to amass enough seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament to form a government without seeking coalition partners.
The winner of Sunday’s election will have three days to negotiate a coalition with one or more other parties. If it fails, the mandate to form a government is then given to the other party. But deep divisions between the two main parties and four smaller ones expected to enter parliament mean a coalition will be hard to come by, making a second election likely on July 2.
The second election would be held under a new electoral law that makes it easier for a winning party to form a government by giving it a bonus of up to 50 seats in parliament.
A total of 32 parties are vying for votes, although opinion polls have shown that only six have a realistic chance of reaching the three percent threshold to gain seats in parliament.
Greece’s once-dominant socialist Pasok party is likely to be at the center of any coalition negotiations. Beaten by Syriza during Greece’s 2009-2018 financial crisis, the party has polled around 10%. Its leader, Nikos Androulakis, 44, was at the center of a wiretapping scandal in which his phone was subject to surveillance.
Polling around 10 percent, Pasok would be crucial in any coalition deal, but Androulakis’ poor relationship with Mitsotakis, whom he accuses of covering up the wiretapping scandal, means a deal with the conservatives is unlikely. His relationship with Tsipras is also poor, accusing him of trying to poach Pasok voters.
The far-right Greek party, founded by a jailed former lawmaker with a history of neo-Nazi activity, was banned by the Supreme Court. His former party, Golden Dawn, which rose to become Greece’s third largest during the financial crisis, was considered a criminal organization.
Ahead of the election, Mitsotakis had held a double-digit lead in the polls but saw that eroded after a February 28 rail disaster that killed 57 people after an intercity passenger train was mistakenly put on the same rail line as an oncoming freight train. It was later revealed that the train stations were poorly staffed and the security infrastructure broken and outdated.
The government was also hit by a surveillance scandal in which prominent Greek politicians, including Androulakis, and journalists discovered spyware on their phones. The prime minister said he had not been aware of the tapping of Androulakis’ phone and would not have allowed it if he had known. But the revelations deepened mistrust among the country’s political parties at a time when consensus may be badly needed.
Tsipras has fought hard over the railway disaster and the wiretapping scandal.
In power since the 2019 election, Mitsotakis has delivered unexpectedly high growth, a steep drop in unemployment and a country on the verge of returning to investment grade on the global bond market for the first time since it lost market access in 2010, at the start of its financial crisis.
Debts to the International Monetary Fund were paid off early. European governments and the IMF pumped 280 billion euros ($300 billion) into the Greek economy in emergency loans between 2010 and 2018 to prevent the eurozone member from going bankrupt. In return, they demanded penalty-saving measures and reforms that caused the country’s economy to shrink by a quarter.
A severe recession and years of bailouts left Greece with a huge public debt that reached 400 billion euros last December and hammered household incomes, which are likely to need another decade to recover.
The other three parties with realistic chances of parliamentary seats are the Communist Party of Greece, or KKE, led by Dimitris Koutsoumbas; the left-wing Front European Realistic Disobedience (MeRA25), led by Tsipras’ flamboyant former finance minister; and the right-wing Elliniki Lysi, or Greek Solution, led by Kyriakos Velopoulos.
The KKE, a staple of Greek politics, has seen a steady core of support around 4.5%-5.5% over the past decade, while Varoufaki’s party has polled just over the 3% parliamentary threshold. Velopoulos’ party elected 10 lawmakers in 2019 and looks set to re-enter parliament.