ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Exit polls in Greece’s general election indicate conservative opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis won a comfortable victory Sunday over left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
The exit polls also predicted Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party would win enough seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament to form a government without needing to seek a coalition with another party.
If returns provide the same outcome, it will be a stinging blow to Tsipras, who had insisted he could overturn a sizeable gap in opinion polls running up to Sunday’s vote.
The exit polls also indicated a major fall in support for far-right parties, including the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn, indicating a turn away from the recent populist trend in other parts of Europe.
Senior members of Tsipras’ party all but conceded defeat.
“We will not be a passive opposition, but we will defend rights that have been earned for people during our government,” said Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, a close aide to the prime minister who served as government spokesman until the election campaign started.
The vote was Greece’s first parliamentary election since the end of its international bailouts and came as the country gradually emerges from a brutal financial crisis that saw unemployment and poverty levels skyrocket and the economy shrink by a quarter.
Greece was dependent for survival until last summer on three successive bailouts, and had to impose deep reforms, including massive spending cuts and tax hikes, to qualify for the rescue loans.
The vote is unlikely to affect the strong ties developed between Greece and Israel over the last decade, which have remained firm through successive changes of government, including the last time New Democracy ruled between 2012 and 2015.
Tsipras called the election three months ahead of schedule after his left-wing Syriza party suffered a severe defeat in European Union and local elections in May and early June.
To gain ground, he increasingly appealed to the middle class, which struggles under a heavy tax burden, much of it imposed by his government.
“It’s a crucial battle, we fight it with optimism, we fight it with determination until the last minute,” Tsipras said after casting his ballot in central Athens in the morning. “So that the sacrifices and efforts of our nation do not go to waste, so the course of our country forward is not interrupted.”
Tsipras appealed to young people to vote and “not leave the crucial decision for their lives and their future to others.” The voting age was extended to age 16 for Greek teenagers who will turn 17 within 2019.
But Mitsotakis, the 51-year-old son of a former prime minister, brother of a former foreign minister and uncle to a newly elected mayor of Athens, managed to build a sizeable lead in opinion polls.
He pledged to make Greece more business-friendly, attract foreign investment, modernize the country’s notorious bureaucracy and to cut taxes. He also fought to shed the image of family privilege.
“Today, voters take the decision for their future in their hands,” Mitsotakis said after voting. “I am sure that tomorrow, a better day dawns for our nation.”
Tsipras led his small Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, party to power in 2015 on promises to repeal the austerity measures of Greece’s first two bailouts.
But after months of tumultuous negotiations with international creditors that saw Greece nearly crash out of the European Union’s joint currency, he was forced to change tack, signing up to a third bailout and imposing the accompanying spending cuts and tax hikes.
He also cemented a deal with neighboring North Macedonia under which that country changed its name from plain “Macedonia.” Although praised by Western allies, the deal angered many Greeks, who consider use of the term harbors expansionist aims on the Greek province of the same name.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report