Greeks were voting Sunday in the first parliamentary election since their country emerged from three successive international bailouts but still struggles with a crippling nearly decade-long financial crisis.
The vote was called three months earlier than originally planned after left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras suffered a stinging defeat in European and local elections in May and early June.
Opinion polls have suggested Greeks are set to defy the recent European trend of increasing support for populist parties, with conservative opposition party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis a clear favorite to win.
Sunday’s vote comes as the country gradually emerges from a brutal financial crisis that saw unemployment and poverty levels skyrocket, and Greece’s economy slashed by a quarter. Greece was dependent for survival until last summer on international bailouts, and had to impose deep reforms, including massive spending cuts and tax hikes, to qualify for the rescue loans.
Tsipras, 44, says his Syriza party can overturn the sizeable gap in opinion polls running up to Sunday’s vote, and has increasingly been appealing to the middle class, which has been struggling under a heavy tax burden, much of it imposed by his government.
Tsipras led his small Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, party to victory in 2015 elections on promises to repeal the austerity measures of Greece’s first two bailouts. But after months of tumultuous negotiations with the country’s 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.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, son of a former prime minister and brother of a former foreign minister, has pledged to make Greece more business-friendly, attract foreign investment, modernize the country’s notorious bureaucracy and cut taxes.
While he is the clear favorite to win Sunday’s vote, the number of smaller parties making it into parliament could determine whether he has enough seats in the 300-member body to form a government. He would need at least 151 to be able to govern without forming a coalition with another party.
A number of smaller parties are vying to beat the 3% threshold to enter parliament.
Among them is a new Europe-wide anti-austerity party, MeRA25, founded by Tsipras’ first finance minister, the controversial Yanis Varoufakis, who many blame for the dramatic failure of negotiations with Greece’s creditors in the first few months of Tsipras’ government. Varoufakis very narrowly missed making the 3% threshold in May’s European elections.
Another is Kyriakos Velopoulos, a far-right populist TV pundit who is a new entry onto Greece’s main political scene with his Greek Solution party. Velopoulos is widely known for his TV appearances, which he has used to sell what he claims are letters by Jesus Christ.
Greece’s extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, founded by neo-Nazi supporters more than three decades ago and which rose to be the third largest in parliament during the financial crisis, saw a major drop in support in the last European elections.