Greeks go to the polls, with rising cost of living on voters’ minds

First election since end of post-crisis international economic supervision pits conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis against left-wing Alexis Tsipras

A man leaves the voting booth as he's votes at a polling station in Athens, Greece, May 21, 2023. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
A man leaves the voting booth as he's votes at a polling station in Athens, Greece, May 21, 2023. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greeks were voting Sunday in the first election since their country’s economy ceased to be subject to strict supervision and control by international lenders who had provided bailout funds during its nearly decade-long financial crisis.

The vote pits conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 55, a Harvard-educated former banking executive, against 48-year-old Alexis Tsipras, who heads the left-wing Syriza party and served as prime minister during some of the financial crisis’s most turbulent years, as the two main contenders.

The rising cost of living was at the forefront of many voters’ minds as they headed to polling centers set up in schools across the country.

“Every year, instead of improving, things are getting worse,” said Athens resident Dimitris Hondrogiannis, 54. “Things are expensive. Every day, things are getting out of control. It’s enough to make you afraid to go to the supermarket to shop. We’ll see how things go.”

Hondrogiannis said he hoped for a stable government that would help reduce prices for food and general goods. “People cannot make ends meet,” he said.

Although Mitsotakis has been steadily ahead in opinion polls, a newly introduced electoral system of proportional representation makes it unlikely that whoever wins the election will be able to garner enough seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament to form a government without seeking coalition partners.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of New Democracy, votes at a polling station in Athens, Greece, May 21, 2023. (Yorgos Karahalis/AP)

The winner of Sunday’s election will have three days to negotiate a coalition with other parties. If that fails, the mandate to form a government passes to the second party and the process is repeated. 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, probably on July 2.

The second election would be held under a new electoral law which makes it easier for a winning party to form a government by giving it a bonus of up to 50 seats in parliament, calculated on a sliding scale depending on the percentage of votes won.

A total of 32 parties are running, although opinion polls have indicated only six have a realistic chance of meeting 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 talks. Overtaken by Syriza during Greece’s 2009-2018 financial crisis, the party has been polling at around 10%. Its leader, Nikos Androulakis, 44, was at the center of a wiretapping scandal in which his phone was targeted for surveillance.

Pasok would be vital in any coalition deal, but Androulakis’s poor relationship with Mitsotakis, who he accuses of covering up the wiretapping scandal, mean 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 Greeks Party, founded by a jailed former lawmaker with a history of neo-Nazi activity, was banned from participating by the Supreme Court. His former party, Golden Dawn, which rose to become Greece’s third largest during the financial crisis, was deemed to be a criminal organization.

Voters look an election vote list at a polling station in Athens, Greece, May 21, 2023. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

In the run-up to the election, Mitsotakis had enjoyed a double-digit lead in opinion polls, but saw that erode following a rail disaster on February 28 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.

The government was also battered by a surveillance scandal in which journalists and prominent Greek politicians, including Androulakis, discovered spyware on their phones. The revelations deepened mistrust among the country’s political parties at a time when consensus may be badly needed.

Tsipras has campaigned heavily on the rail disaster and the wiretapping scandal.

In power since 2019, Mitsotakis has delivered unexpectedly high growth, a steep drop in unemployment and a country on the brink 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 bankruptcy. In return, they demanded punishing cost-cutting measures and reforms that saw the country’s economy shrink by a quarter.

A severe recession and years of emergency borrowing left Greece with a whopping national debt that reached 400 billion euros last December and hammered household incomes, which will likely need another decade to recover.

Leader of the main opposition Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras talks to the media after casts his vote at a polling station in Athens, Greece, May 21, 2023. (Michael Varaklas/AP)

Retired Bank of Greece employee Evangellos Tassis, 78, said he can still make ends meet with his pension. “We’re from an older generation and we were a bit lucky. You young people have it hard now,” he said.

Tassis said he hoped the election would produce “better days. That’s it. What else can I say?”

The other three parties with realistic chances of parliamentary seats are Greece’s Communist Party, or KKE, led by Dimitris Koutsoumbas; the left-wing European Realistic Disobedience front (MeRA25), led by Tsipras’s flamboyant former finance minister; and the right-wing Elliniki Lysi, or Greek Solution, headed 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 Varoufakis’ party has been polling at just over the 3% parliamentary threshold. Velopoulos’s party elected 10 lawmakers in 2019 and looks set to enter parliament again.

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