Greece’s opposition conservatives were on track to return to power by a landslide on Sunday, early results showed, unseating incumbent leftists blamed for foisting a bailout on the country which critics say was unnecessary.
The win appeared driven by fatigue with years of European Union-enforced belt-tightening, combined with high unemployment, after the country almost crashed out of the euro zone at the height of its financial travails in 2015.
Exit polls gave conservative New Democracy a commanding lead of between 38 and 42 percent of the vote, suggesting an outright majority in Greece’s parliament.
An official interior ministry projection gave New Democracy 39.8 percent and Syriza about 31.5 percent. New Democracy, led by opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was seen winning between 155 and 167 seats in the 300 member parliament.
“Greece has signalled to Europe that it is time to put populism behind us,” said Anna Michelle Asimakopoulou, a senior lawmaker with New Democracy.
Sunday’s poll was the first national election since the country shook off close scrutiny by its European partners who loaned Greece billions in three bailouts.
Tsipras signed up to the latest, in 2015, in return for potential debt relief.
Mitsotakis, 51, assumed the helm of New Democracy in 2016. Although he is regarded as a liberal, his party also harbours members with more right-wing views.
Golden Dawn, an extreme right-wing party detractors accuse of having neo-Nazi sympathies, lost significant ground with early results suggesting it may not reach the 3 percent threshold to parliament.
“The basic reason (for the result) is the economy,” said analyst Theodore Couloumbis. “In the past 4.5 years people saw no improvement, on the contrary there were cutbacks in salaries and pensions,” he said.
Greece endured a debilitating financial crisis from 2010 that required three cash lifelines from its euro zone partners.
The focus now turns to Mitsotakis’s picks for the key economics ministries finance, energy, development and foreign affairs. He has been tight-lipped on choices during the campaign.
Mitsotakis will inherit an economy that is growing at a moderate clip at a 1.3% annual pace in the first quarter and public finances that may fall short of targets agreed with official lenders.
The Bank of Greece projects that the 3.5% of GDP primary surplus target that excludes debt servicing outlays is likely to be missed this year and reach just 2.9% of economic output.
With Greece still challenged by its debt overhang, the fiscal policy stance of the new government will be closely watched.
The real test will be next year’s budget with Mitsotakiss expected to outline the key contours in the traditional economic address in Thessaloniki in September.
“I want the government that will be elected to do its best for the people, who are hungry,” said pensioner Christos Mpekos, 69. “To give jobs to the young so they don’t leave.”
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.
But he has also been roundly criticised for mismanagement of crises and for brokering a deeply unpopular deal to end a dispute over the name of neighbouring North Macedonia.
Greece wrapped up its last economic adjustment programme 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. It has also promised to be tough on crime in some neighbourhoods of Athens where there is a strong anarchist movement.
In one neighbourhood, activists stormed a polling station and made off with a ballot box.