Greek Leader Claims ‘Political Earthquake’ as His Party Leads in Elections

The ruling party of Greece’s conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was well ahead of the opposition in Sunday’s general election but fell short of the absolute majority required to secure another term, setting the stage for another general election since Mr Mitsotakis appeared to rule out any haggling to form a coalition government.

Mr Mitsotakis described the preliminary result as a “political earthquake” that required an “experienced hand at the helm” from Greece and said that any negotiations with potentially conflicting coalition partners would only lead to a dead end.

With 85 percent of votes counted on Sunday night and his party, New Democracy, leading opposition Syriza by 20 percentage points, Mitsotakis waved to a cheering crowd of supporters outside his party’s office in Athens.

“We kept the country on its feet and we have laid the foundations for a better nation,” he said. “We will fight the next battle together so that in the next elections what we have already decided will come true, an autonomous New Democracy.”

New Democracy captured 40.8 percent of the vote on Sunday night, preliminary results showed, after calling on Greeks to opt for economic and political stability over “chaos” in a tense campaign. The center-left Syriza party, led by Alexis Tsipras, under whose rule Greece came close to leaving the eurozone in 2015, came in second with 20 percent of the vote. The socialist PASOK party came in third with 11.6 percent after a vehement campaign against the two main parties.

Tsipras said in a statement that he had called to congratulate Mitsotakis on his victory and that his party would meet to discuss the result as a second election seemed all but assured.

On Monday, when the final result is clarified, the leading party will get a mandate to try to form a government. But most likely the prime minister will not explore that option, leading to a new election, most likely in June or early July. That vote would take place under a different system, which awards bonus seats to the winning party, giving New Democracy a better chance of forming an independent government.

New Democracy appeared to be on track to win 145 seats in the 300-seat parliament, with 72 seats for Syriza, preliminary results showed. Syriza’s poor performance sparked speculation in the Greek media about the future of the centre-left party.

“It reflects the total collapse of Syriza’s strategy, its perpetual drift to the right, a left-wing hegemonic position that deepened confusion and demoralization,” said Seraphim Seferiades, associate professor of politics and history at Athens’ Panteion University.

He also noted the high abstention rate in the vote, more than 40 percent: turnout was 60 percent, preliminary results showed.

The absence of an outright winner was expected as the election was held under a simple proportional representation system, making it difficult for a single party to seize power.

Three factors added to the ambiguity: one in 10 undecided voters; the approximately 440,000 young people who were able to vote for the first time; and 3 percent of the electorate who had backed a party founded by the jailed spokesman for the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, who was barred from running.

In his campaign speech in Athens on Friday night, Mitsotakis noted his government’s success in boosting growth (now to twice the eurozone average), attracting investment and bolstering the country’s defenses amid a testy period with neighboring Turkey.

“This is not the time for experiments that lead nowhere,” he said, adding that achieving an investment grade rating, which would allow Greece to lower its borrowing costs, required a stable government.

Mr Mitsotakis also made no apology for Greece’s tough stance on immigration, which has included tighter border controls and led to a 90 percent drop in migrant arrivals since 2015. While his government has been criticized for human rights groups for illegally turning away migrants at sea and creating camps with prison-like conditions, many Greeks have welcomed the reduced influx. Immigrants overwhelmed Greece’s resources at the height of Europe’s migration crisis.

“Greece has borders, and those borders must be guarded,” Mitsotakis declared Friday to a cheering crowd of supporters waving Greek flags.

Mr. Tsipras, for his part, had campaigned for change. He highlighted a perceived abuse of power by the current administration, including a wiretapping scandal, and drew attention to the rising cost of living, which opinion polls show is the top concern of most voters.

Before casting his ballot on Sunday, Tsipras called on Greeks to “leave behind an arrogant government that does not feel the needs of the majority.”

His message convinced Elisavet Dimou, 17, who voted for the first time on Sunday at a school in central Athens. He said that he had been swayed by Syriza’s promise of “change” and “justice”.

“Syriza also made mistakes, but they didn’t spy on half the country,” he said, referring to reports that the wiretapping scandal had affected dozens of politicians, journalists and businessmen.

Another factor in his choice of Syriza was the fatal train accident in central Greece in February that killed 57 people, including many students. “They had their whole lives ahead of them and they died because those in power didn’t care enough to fix the trains,” she said.

Public outrage over the crash briefly dented New Democracy’s lead in opinion polls, but that rose again as supporters apparently found comfort in promises of continued stability and prosperity.

One supporter, Sakis Farantakis, a 54-year-old hair salon owner, said: “They’re far from perfect, but it’s the only safe option. We have moved on; Why go back to uncertainty?

Mitsotakis has argued that a one-party government would be preferable to a coalition deal to ensure stability and reassure investors. Economic growth has taken hold in Greece after a decade-long financial crisis that ended in 2018.

He has little choice of partners. The socialist Pasok party had been considered the only realistic candidate for a coalition with New Democracy. But Mitsotakis’s admission last year that Greece’s state surveillance agency had spied on Pasok leader Nikos Androulakis strained ties between the men and clouded any prospects for cooperation.