Greece’s ruling New Democracy party scored a crushing victory in parliamentary elections Sunday but fell short of winning an outright majority in a vote dominated by the cost-of-living crisis, a wiretapping scandal and anger over the country’s deadliest-ever train crash.
The result could ultimately lead to a new election in the summer, with victorious Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis rejecting the opportunity to form a coalition government on Monday.
With more than 99% of votes counted, Mitsotakis’s ruling center-right party had surpassed all expectations by garnering more than 40% of the vote, in a result he described as a “political earthquake.”
His main opposition, Alexis Tsipras’s centre-left Syriza party, suffered major losses, coming in second with just over 20% of the vote.
But Mitsotakis did not win enough votes to secure a single-party government. Mitsotakis said Monday he will reject the mandate to form a coalition government, hoping for a new election by the end of June.
The vote was held under a new proportional representation system that requires a threshold of around 45%.
“I intend to hand back the mandate for coalition talks this afternoon,” Mitsotakis said during a meeting with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, adding that he hopes for second round of elections on June 25. Mitsotakis said that the message from Sunday’s elections was “absolutely clear” and that the country “needs a strong and stable government.”
The President will next move to formally invite the leaders of the second and third-place parties to form a coalition; if that effort fails, a caretaker government will be sworn in and a second vote will take place. That round will be held under different rules requiring the winning party to achieve just 37% of the votes.
“Without a doubt, the political earthquake that occurred today calls on us all to speed up the process for a definitive government solution so our country can have an experienced hand at its helm as soon as possible,” Mitsotakis told jubilant New Democracy supporters massed outside party headquarters in Athens last night.
Greece’s economic future on the ballot
Greeks headed to the polls with the future of the economy and their strained personal finances topping their priorities.
New Democracy’s bid for a second term focused on the country’s successful economic recovery since coming to power in 2019 with Mitsotakis portraying himself as a safe pair of hands to further boost growth.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Mitsotakis told CNN while on the campaign trail. “We were laggards when it came to growth back in 2019 and now we are one of the best-performing economies in the eurozone.”
The country’s economy has staged a stunning turnaround in the last decade, and is now on the brink of returning to investment grade on the global market for the first time since it lost market access in 2010.
Significantly for the elections though, the country’s financial gains have not yet been felt by many Greeks struggling with high inflation and living costs.
A belt-tightening financial crisis throughout the 2010s saw the country’s GDP slashed by a quarter and people’s salaries and pensions severely cut leading thousands to the breadline.
Asking for a second chance was main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, who came to power in 2015 promising radical change that saw bank runs and capital controls fall short of convincing voters.
“Greeks did not vote feeling optimistic,” says political analyst Petros Ioannides, managing partner of aboutpeople pollsters. “Neither of the two main parties are new to the scene. They have both been in government during the last 10 years,” he said.
“In 2015 people voted for change, and a newcomer prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and there was hope in that. In 2019 there was a different kind of hope, a yearning for a return to stability, again with a first-time prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
“In these elections, the parties and leaders are known and so are their perceived shortcomings.”
Backdrop to election
The elections also took place in the shadow of a wiretapping scandal in which the government was accused of spying on opposition politicians and journalists, raising overall concerns over the rule of law.
The turmoil, which one political party referred to as “Greek Watergate,” forced a number of high-profile departures.
But potentially, the most severe blow for the government came in the form of a head-on train collision that killed 57 people in February, many of them university students.
The country’s deadliest railway disaster saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets across Greece, venting their anger against corruption and chronic lack of infrastructure. It also pushed some voters away from established parties.
Young protesters were seen on national television crying, saying they felt betrayed by their politicians. Out of a total of 9.8 million registered voters, there were around 440,000 first-time voters in this election, and many may have been influenced by the rail disaster.
The most likely scenario is that a caretaker government will be sworn in and a second vote will take place. This vote will take place under a bonus system that benefits the winning party by giving it a bonus of up to 50 seats in parliament.
“Strong leadership and political stability is what the markets and investors are looking for,” said Wolfgango Piccoli, co-president at financial advisory firm Teneo. “A coalition government would raise concern about political stability. That would certainly increase the risk from a market perspective that there will be bickering and not much will get done.”
With many Greeks having already factored in a second ballot, analysts say some of Sunday’s voters chose to vote for smaller parties, to show their discontent with the political establishment.
They are expected to rally behind the main parties in a second election where they will want to see a strong government emerge.
CNN’s Chris Liakos contributed reporting