Greek elections a one-horse race after conservatives topple left-wing strongholds

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FILE - Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of Greece's conservative New Democracy party, waves to supporters on the island of Salamina, near Athens, Greece, on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Greeks heading to the polls on Sunday June 25, for a second general election in five weeks, with conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis expected to win re-election by a large margin. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, file)

ATHENS – Greeks return to the polls Sunday for a second general election in five weeks, with the conservative front-runners eyeing a landslide win after toppling strongholds dominated by their opponents for decades.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the 55-year-old conservative leader, is seeking a second four-year term as prime minister. His center-right New Democracy party won by a huge margin in May elections but is heading to a second ballot to take advantage of election law changes that favor the winning party.

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Sunday’s vote comes days after hundreds of migrants died and went missing in southern Greece when an over-crowded fishing trawler capsized and sank, drawing criticism over how Greek authorities handled the rescue.

But the disaster did little to dent Mitsotakis’ 20-point lead in opinion polls over left-wing rivals.

As Greece emerges from a major financial crisis in the previous decade and turmoil caused by the pandemic, voters are happy to return a prime minister who delivered growth and lower unemployment, according to analyst Yannis Tsirbas.

“What we see here is economic voting,” said Tsirbas, a political scientist at the University of Athens.

Mitsotakis, he argued, has successfully reached out to centrist voters, helped by an often-obliging private news media and by muting some prominent right-wing voices in his own party.

“He has been building this profile of a moderate politician and an effective politician for many years now,” he said of Mitsotakis, whose late father Constantine Mitsotakis was a divisive figure who served as prime minister in the early 1990s.

The younger Mitsotakis, a Harvard graduate, has vowed to rebrand Greece as a pro-business and fiscally responsible euro zone member.

The strategy, so far, has worked: New Democracy routed left-wing opponents in May, crucially winning Socialist strongholds on the island of Crete and lower-income areas surrounding Athens, some for the first time.

One of those areas to flip is the mountain-slope Athens district of Kaisariani, once nicknamed “Little Stalingrad.” It has a fiercely proud tradition of support for the Communist Party rooted in World War II resistance and the ugly Cold War aftermath that included a three-year civil war.

Theodoros Sideris grew up in a shack, playing on Kaisariani’s dirt roads, and volunteering to sell a left-wing newspaper on streets corners.

“I come from a left-wing family, and I was a supporter of the left. I had relatives in prison for their beliefs. My mother was a communist, my father too – that’s all there was,” said Sideris, who spends his afternoons volunteering at an open-air cinema run by the municipality.

Now aged 76, he has switched to the conservatives for the first time, disillusioned by negative campaigning on the Left.

“(Mitsotakis) won me over. He speaks to you directly and keeps his promises,” he said. “We remember the past and we honor it, but that’s as far as it goes. The civil war and the divisions – that’s over. Talking about the past is not a political argument.”

Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, head of the left-wing Syriza party, served as prime minister from 2015 to 2019, and at 48 is now fighting for his political survival.

Tsipras, whose campaign is focused on defending the health service and welfare state, failed to make any gains from a series of scandals that hit Mitsotakis late in his term, including revelations of wiretapping targeting journalists and senior politicians, and a deadly train crash on Feb. 28 that exposed poor safety measures.

General elections in May failed to give any party an outright majority in Parliament and Mitsotakis' party — which was five seats short of a majority in the 300-member chamber — chose not to form a governing coalition and instead take its chances with a second election.

Sunday's election falls under new rules that award a bonus of 25-50 seats to the winning party, depending on its performance.

The Syriza party's campaigning for the second election has been further complicated by a pickup in support for several small and marginal political parties, and a resurgence of a once powerful Socialist party. As many as nine parties have a realistic chance of gaining national representation on Sunday, ranging from ultra-religious groups to two left-wing splinter parties founded by top former members of the Syriza government.

The Left has also lost out due to a conservative shift by the Greek electorate, argues Tsirbas, the Athens University academic, in part due to a hardening of attitudes toward migration.

“I think the pandemic also played a major role ... it made everybody more self centered and (promoted) values like safety and protection. Those are conservative values,” Tsirbas said.

“So, it seems that the values of this government are in accordance with a conservative turn of the Greek society. I think that these two aspects are very central to explaining why New Democracy won the election and is going to win again.” ___ Theodora Tongas in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.