ATHENS – Greeks began voting on Sunday in the first general election since Greece emerged from international bailouts, runoff polls predict will bring conservatives to power and end four years of leftist rule blamed for saddling the country with more debt.
The snap election is largely a showdown of two contenders. Incumbent Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza party is on one side – a 44-year-old radical leftist who stormed to power in 2015 vowing to tear up the austerity rule book only to relent weeks later.
On the other side is Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 51, of New Democracy, the scion of a political dynasty who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father as prime minister.
Opinion polls put New Democracy’s lead at up to 10 percentage points, potentially giving it an absolute majority in Greece’s 300-seat parliament. Voting ends at 7.00 pm (1600 GMT), with the first official projections expected about two hours after voting ends.
Greece endured a debilitating financial crisis from 2010 that required a cash lifeline from its European Union partners three times.
The economy is the public’s main concern, said Thomas Gerakis of pollsters MARC.
One voter, a 45-year-old private sector worker who gave his name as Makis, said: “I think in the long run (New Democracy) will be better in terms of management and growth.”
Others said they forgave Tsipras for any errors.
“I am completely satisfied, whatever the mistakes, whatever the omissions. He got us out of the bailouts,” said Niki Loufa, 61, a retired bank worker.
Tsipras has also been roundly criticized for mismanagement of crises and for brokering a deeply unpopular deal to end a dispute over the name of neighboring North Macedonia.
One hundred people were killed in a devastating fire that swept through a seaside village east of Athens last year. While Mitsotakis was quick to the scene to console survivors, Tsipras was out of the public eye for several days.
Greece wrapped up its last economic adjustment program in 2018 but remains under surveillance from lenders to ensure no future fiscal slippage. While economic growth has returned, Greek unemployment of 18 percent is the euro zone’s highest.
New Democracy has promised to invest in creating well-paid jobs with decent benefits. The outgoing government meanwhile hopes voters will reward it for upping the minimum wage by 11 percent and reinstating collective bargaining.
Mitsotakis hopes that his reforms will convince lenders to show more flexibility in due course.
“The first thing that is necessary for economic growth to be boosted is a stable government, a strong majority in the next parliament,” Mitsotakis told Reuters.
Tsipras says that a vote cast for Mitsotakis would go to the political establishment, which forced Greece to the edge of the precipice in the first place.
“Each and every one of you must now consider if, after so many sacrifices, we should return to the days of despair,” he told voters, wrapping up the pre-election campaign on Friday.