Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of Greece’s center-right New Democracy party, has comfortably won a second four-year term as prime minister, on a night that also saw gains for the far right.
Mitsotakis is set to return to the prime minister’s office in a stronger position with his party’s resounding victory in Sunday’s elections, which were dominated by financial stability and cost-of-living issues.
“We have high targets that will transform Greece,” a triumphant Mitsotakis said in his victory speech, promising that “major reforms” would soon be under way.
“I will not tolerate any arrogance,” he added.
With nearly 100% of the vote counted, New Democracy had garnered over 40% of the vote. Its main opposition, leftist party Syriza trailed far behind in the preliminary results with over 17%.
A total of eight parties, including centrist PASOK-KINAL and leftist KKE, crossed the 3% threshold to enter the Greek parliament. They included groups on the far-right; the biggest surprise in Sunday’s vote was the entry to parliament of the little known, strongly anti-migrant Spartans party, backed by disgraced former lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris, who is currently serving a prison sentence of over 13 years for membership in a criminal organization.
He is a former leading member of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that gained popularity during Greece’s financial crisis.
Other fringe far-right entries to parliament included the nationalist party Greek Solution and the ultra-religious, anti-abortion Niki. The three together have secured for the far right a bloc of more than 30 seats.
“Mitsotakis has been rewarded by voters as the leader who has led Greece out of a severe debt crisis and three international bailouts back into a growth path. Someone who has kept, at least some, of his pledges which is more than many in Greece had previously done,” said Nick Malkoutzis, senior political analyst at Macropolis.
It was the second general election in Greece in five weeks, after New Democracy scored a victory in May surpassing all expectations but fell short of winning an outright majority.
Mitsotakis, at the helm during the Covid-19 pandemic and Europe’s energy crisis, had positioned himself as a safe pair of hands to boost growth in difficult global circumstances. His government staged a stunning turnaround in the economy, now on the brink of returning to investment grade on the global market for the first time since it lost market access in 2010.
New Democracy’s bid for reelection focused on measures to consolidate Greece’s economic recovery, promising a 3% annual growth, tax cuts and curbing unemployment.
Greece’s former prime minister Alexis Tsipras – who had struggled to deliver on economic recovery promises while in office – fell short of convincing voters, along with his leftist Syriza party.
The migration debate
Sunday’s vote came days after a shocking shipwreck in Greek waters. At least 82 people were left dead and hundreds more unaccounted for when an overcrowded migrant boat capsized and sank of the coast of Pylos.
The deadly wreck drew criticism of authorities’ response and halted the election campaign as Greece’s caretaker government announced three days of mourning.
During his election campaign, Mitsotakis vowed to further extend a 35-kilometer fence at the Greek-Turkey border, to block migrants trying to enter Greece.
Syriza has also toned down its tune on migration with its leader Tsipras at a pre-election debate agreeing to keep the fence, distancing himself from the open-arms policy toward refugees he has been advocating for years.
“The migration debate in Greece is different than anywhere else in Europe,” said Malkoutzis. “Greeks largely feel that its, militarily powerful neighbor Turkey is weaponizing migration to question Greece’s territorial sovereignty publicly. Therefore migration issues are linked to Greece’s national causes and no parties want to, or can afford to, seem to be taken those lightly.”
A series of Greek governments have been criticized by international bodies for their handling of migration policy. Conditions in Greek migrant camps have been decried by human rights organizations, particularly following the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than 1 million people entered Europe through the country.
In the past year, New Democracy has also faced a wiretapping scandal, growing concerns over the rule of law and public outcry at the aftermath of the country’s worst-ever train crash that left at least 57 people dead. But these only temporarily rocked New Democracy’s public approval ratings.
Mitsotakis won the 2019 elections by branding himself as a liberal reformist, promising to reignite the Greek economy and change its image as Europe’s problem child in the wake of an eight-year depression that saw its economy shrink by 25% – the worst contraction in a developed economy since the end of World War II.
Fueled by May’s initial election results, Greek bonds and stocks have rallied with optimism that a pro-investment government could prevent financial backsliding.
“Strong leadership and political stability is what the markets and investors are looking for,” said Wolfgango Piccoli, co-president at financial advisory firm Teneo.
Mitsotakis has also pledged reforms in the judiciary, health and education, and promised further cuts in the country’s bloated public sector.
A lack of a strong vision by main opposition parties seems to have contributed to Mitsotakis’ landslide win.
With main opposition parties emerging from the latest election greatly weakened, potential questions over a lack of plurality of mainstream voices are resurfacing, along with questions for future accountability and transparency.
“The lack of a strong mainstream opposition certainly creates a void and one that the government will have to handle carefully,” said Vassiliki Georgiadou, a professor of political science at Panteion University in Athens.
As well as a strong showing for far-right groups, the eight-party parliament will also include a party on the far-left, Course for Freedom, led by a former Syriza official.
“The fringe voices are likely to cause disruption. Particularly in issues to do with nationalism, migration and foreign policy,” said Georgiadou.
“But despite the populist cacophony, Mitsotakis’ strong victory provides the new government a clear mandate to govern.”