Athens, Jul 7 (AP/UNB) — Greeks were voting Sunday in the first parliamentary election since their country emerged from three successive international bailouts still struggling with a crippling nearly decade-long financial crisis.
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.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called the vote three months earlier than originally planned after his left-wing Syriza party suffered a stinging defeat in European and local elections in May and early June.
Tsipras, 44, hopes to overturn a sizeable gap in opinion polls running up to Sunday's vote. He has increasingly been appealing to the middle class, which has been struggling under a heavy tax burden, much of it imposed by his government.
"It's a crucial battle, we fight it with optimism, we fight it with determination until the last minute," Tsipras said after casting his ballot in central Athens in the morning. "So that the sacrifices and efforts of our nation do not go to waste, so the course of our country forward is not interrupted."
Tsipras appealed to young people to turn up at the ballot boxes and "not leave the crucial decision for their lives and their future to others." The voting age has been extended to 16 for the first time in national elections, provided the voter turns 17 within 2019.
But Mitsotakis, the 51-year-old son of a former prime minister and brother of a former foreign minister, has managed to build a sizeable lead in opinion polls that he has held over the past three years. He pledges to make Greece more business-friendly, attract foreign investment, modernize the country's notorious bureaucracy and cut taxes, and has fought to shed the image of family privilege.
"Today voters take the decision for their future in their hands," Mitsotakis said after voting. "I am sure that tomorrow, a better day dawns for our nation."
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 led his small Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, party to power in 2015 on promises to repeal the austerity measures of Greece's first two bailouts. But after months of tumultuous negotiations with 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.
While Mitsotakis is the clear favorite to win, 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.
Those casting ballots early in the morning were mostly elderly, and some expressed dissatisfaction with the overall political situation.
"Unfortunately, there is no hope. There is no person who fights for the country, only for their glory," said 90-year-old voter Torkom Asatourgian as he cast his ballot in central Athens.
Another early voter, 82-year-old Eleni Alexopoulou-Depou, said she was supporting one of the myriad small parties.
"I don't care which individuals are elected. I'm not asking for something," she said. "I just want a voice that can propose some positive things, even though it won't govern."
Numerous smaller parties are vying to beat the 3% threshold to enter parliament.
They include 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 heads the Greek Solution party. Velopoulos is widely known for his TV appearances, which he has used to make various sales, including of what he claims are letters written 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.