ATHENS – With surveys showing he has leads as high as 15 percent, major opposition New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is expecting a big win in July 7 snap polls and said his party, with a history of infighting, is “more united and rejuvenated than ever before.”
Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, who plummeted in popularity after more than four years of reneging on anti-austerity promises, insisted he could still win although no polls showed that he could.
Mitsotakis said he wants a mandate to rule outright and that if he doesn’t get enough of a margin to control Parliament without a coalition partner he would immediately call for yet another election in a bid to take full control.
Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd in the downtown district of Thiseio with the Parthenon as a backdrop, the 51-year-old vowed to “resurrect” the middle class that has been “destroyed” by the leftists of governing SYRIZA, said Kathimerini.
He said SYRIZA policies had delayed a return to the markets after the Aug. 20, 2018 end of three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($367.12 billion) that began in 2010 and came with attached austerity measures, including those that Tsipras vowed to reject but imposed.
“Greece would have exited the bailouts sooner had it not been for the disastrous SYRIZA government,” he said, adding that international markets “have already placed their trust in the next government.”
He also said he would review a law aimed at decongesting Greece’s prisons that saw violent criminals released and a subsequent wave of crime and violence that he said he would end with a crackdown on the trouble.
A survey by the company Pulse for SKAI TV gave New Democracy an 8 percent lead and showed the party would win 155-158 seats in the 300-member Parliament and wouldn’t need a partner, giving Mitsotakis the mandate he wants if that prevails.
The survey had respondents giving New Democracy a 36-28 percent margin over SYRIZA with the center-left coalition Movement for Change (KINAL,) led by former members of the now defunct PASOK Socialists who served New Democracy in a previous coalition third at 7 percent.
The KKE Communists were fourth at 5 percent and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, all 15 of whose lawmakers and dozens of members are in the fourth year of a trial on charges of running a criminal gang fifth at 4 percent.
Hitting the 3 percent threshold needed to get into Parliament were the new Greek Solution (Elliniki Lysi,) a pro-Russia, ultra-religious, supernationalist group and the new MeRA25 of former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who was ousted by Tsipras for being too combative with the country’s lenders to whom the Premier then surrendered.
Asked who will win the election, 69 percent of respondents picked New Democracy to 19 percent who thought Tsipras would return, while 87 percent said it is “very likely or certain” that they will turn up to cast their vote.
New Democracy had a 15 point lead in a survey by Public Issue, some 42.5-27 percent, that poll giving the party 173 seats if only five parties get into Parliament.
Greek voters appeared set to defy a surge of support populist parties across Europe in the general election that Tsipras called after his candidates took a beating in May 26 elections for the European Parliament and Greek municipalities.
Greece’s near decade-long crisis fueled rise of a number of extreme political parties, including Golden Dawn, whose leaders espouse Nazi ideology and first gained parliamentary representation in 2012.
But the end of the bailout era last August has marked a gradual return to traditional politics — in contrast to a large number of European Union members where mainstream parties are under pressure.
Tsipras’ once radical left-wing party, SYRIZA, has recently aligned itself with policies of the European Socialists, becoming more moderate as it lost 600,000 votes from disenchanted voters who said they were betrayed by him.
“Greece was the country that brought about the first genuinely populist coalition, the one of SYRIZA and (nationalist) Independent Greeks back in 2015, and it is probably the first one that is abandoning this populist coalition and populist politics even though this government has shifted to … relatively more mainstream policies,” said George Pagoulatos, Professor of European Politics and Economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business.
“And in that sense it is a moment of political maturity of Greek society especially if compared with other societies in Europe that have gone through far less painful experiences compared to the Greek Great Depression.”
The lections come at the tail end of the crippling financial crisis that began in 2010 and left the country dependent on international rescue loans for survival. But the bailouts — three in total — came with strings attached: austerity measures and reforms.
The country’s economy shrank by a quarter, and unemployment spiraled to highs of around 27%, from where it has struggled to fall to current levels of around 20%.
Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, Greeks head to the polls without the threat of imminent default, crashing out of Europe’s joint currency, the euro, or yet more crushing bailout measures dangling over their heads.
Despite a recent spending spree on social handouts, Tsipras is struggling to recover lost ground, with opinion polls putting New Democracy’s Mitsotakis firmly in the lead and suggesting that the conservatives are attracting undecided voters at nearly twice the rate of Syriza in the final week of campaigning.
Mitsotakis, son of the late conservative prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis, has run on a campaign promise to slash bailout-era taxes and building on business-friendly reforms imposed by creditors.
“Mr. Tsipras decided to overtax the middle class. So there is this clear room to scale back from this excessive taxation. Everyone seems to agree that we have to lower taxation including our creditors,” Mitsotakis told The Associated Press in a campaign stop in central Greece.
Encouraging his supporters to ignore opinion polls, Tsipras has campaigned on a pledge to continue repairing the welfare state and the national health service — an effort, he argues, that would be halted by his opponents.
He also took aim at Mitsotakis’ privileged background.
“The crown princes (of Greek politics) should not be in such a rush to return to the throne — the Greek people have not said their final word,” Tsipras, a veteran of Greek politics at just 44, told supporters at a rally this week in southern Greece. “You are being told that race is over, but our people will never return to those who looted and bankrupted the country.”
The government’s popularity was also hit by its perceived mishandling of a deadly summer wildfire last year in Mati, on the outskirts of Athens that killed 101 people.
His support was also dented by a landmark agreement that took effect this year with neighboring North Macedonia, which formally changed its name from Macedonia to end a decades-long dispute with Athens. Greece has long argued use of the term implies territorial ambitions on its own northern province of the same name. The deal was warmly welcomed by Greece’s NATO allies but remains unpopular domestically.
Ultimately, however, voters are swayed by their personal finances and the impact of Greece’s draconian bailout commitment, argues politics and economy professor Pagoulatos.
“The policies (Tsipras) had to apply were not policies that most of its supporters would have supported under normal conditions,” he said. “The high tax burden on the middle class has been one of the main reasons why SYRIZA has lost much of its support,” he added.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)