Greece’s ruling New Democracy party stormed to a crushing victory in a parliamentary election but fell just short of the threshold needed to form a government on its own.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his conservative party had a lead of 40.8 percent of the vote based on more than 90 percent of the ballots counted on Sunday evening, versus 20.1 percent for the left-wing Syriza party led by Alexis Tsipras.
Greece’s interior ministry projected that New Democracy could win 145 seats in parliament, six short of an absolute majority.
“[The exit polls] show a clear victory for New Democracy and a clear renewal of the mandate to continue the major changes sought by Greek society,” government spokesman Akis Skertsos said, as the party began celebrating its strong showing.
If borne out by full results, Sunday’s showing would be a major disappointment for Syriza, and a better-than-expected performance for New Democracy.
But as it fell short of an outright majority to rule alone, the conservative party will struggle to form a government without seeking coalition partners and could be forced to call a new ballot in a month’s time.
New Democracy indicated it would prefer to seek a clear win in a second election and be able to govern on its own.
“We have said that we want to govern outright because that would ensure stability and the way forward. So we have the right to ask the Greek people for that in the next election,” Public Order Minister Takis Theodorikakos said on Skai television shortly after polls closed Sunday evening.
The election was held under a new law of proportional representation, which makes it particularly difficult for any one party to win enough parliamentary seats to form a government on its own.
If a second election is held, likely in late June or early July, the law will change again, shifting to a system that rewards the leading party with bonus seats and making it easier for it to win a parliamentary majority.
Political disengagement among youth
University student Petros Apostolakis expressed his discontent with the exit polls. “I’m not very happy [with the results…] For the past few years, I’ve seen [the] New Democracy party implementing agendas that have nothing to do with the interests of my generation,” he told Al Jazeera in Athens, citing climate change and the steep housing prices as some of the issues that had been neglected.
George Tzogopoulos, lecturer at the Democritus University of Thrace, told Al Jazeera that young people were dissatisfied with the political class as a whole. “But what happened is that they didn’t show up and vote, they expressed their anger with demonstrations or through social media [instead],” he said.
“This is how New Democracy managed to score such an impressive success,” Tzogopoulos added.
Sunday’s election is Greece’s first since its economy ceased being under strict supervision by international lenders who had provided bailout funds during the country’s nearly decade-long financial crisis.
Mitsotakis, a 55-year-old Harvard-educated former banking executive, won 2019 elections on a promise of business-oriented reforms and has vowed to continue tax cuts, boost investments and bolster middle-class employment.
His popularity took a hit following a February 28 rail disaster that killed 57 people after an intercity passenger train was accidentally put on the same rail line as an oncoming freight train. It was later revealed that train stations were poorly staffed and safety infrastructure broken and outdated.
Thousands of people, many of them university students like the railway disaster victims, staged rallies across Greek cities to protest what they saw as negligence on the part of the government.
The government was also battered by a surveillance scandal in which journalists and prominent Greek politicians discovered spyware on their phones. The revelations deepened mistrust among the country’s political parties at a time when consensus may be badly needed.
In spite of that, the prime minister had been steadily ahead in opinion polls in the run-up to the election.
Tsipras, 48, served as prime minister during some of the most tumultuous years of the crisis. He struggled to regain the wide support he enjoyed when he swept to power in 2015 on a promise of reversing bailout-imposed austerity measures.
Senior Syriza official Dimitris Papadimoulis, a European Parliament vice-president, told state TV ERT that if confirmed, the result would be “significantly far” from the party’s goals and would mark a failure to rally opposition to the government.
Greece’s once-dominant Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) party is likely to be at the centre of any coalition talks. Exit polls have the potential kingmaker between 9.5 and 12.5 percent.
PASOK’s leader, Nikos Androulakis, 44, was at the centre of the wiretapping scandal in which his phone was targeted for surveillance.
But Androulakis’s poor relationship with Mitsotakis, who he accuses of covering up the wiretapping scandal, means a deal with the conservatives would be difficult. His relationship with Tsipras – who he has accused of trying to poach PASOK voters – is also poor.
In the run-up to the vote, Androulakis had firmly ruled out forming a partnership with Mitsotakis’s conservatives.