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Conservative party of Greek prime minister in big election lead, to seek outright majority

Greece's Prime Minister and leader of New Democracy Kyriakos Mitsotakis gives a speech at the headquarters of his party in Athens, Greece, Sunday, May 21, 2023. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his conservative party are leading Greece's election by a wide margin, according to partial official results, but a new electoral law means he will be unable to form a government without seeking coalition partners, and a second election is likely. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose conservative party scored a landslide election Sunday but without the seats in parliament to win outright, indicated Sunday he will seek a second election in a bid to consolidate victory without need of a coalition partner.

Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party was a full 20 percentage points ahead of its main rival, the left-wing Syriza party, nearly complete results showed. But a new electoral system of proportional representation meant his 40% vote share still was not enough to secure a majority of the 300 seats in parliament. To form a government, he would either have to seek a coalition partner from a smaller party, or head to a second election.

The prime minister said he would “follow all constitutional procedures” but maintained his view that the current electoral system that created the need for coalition was akin to “party horse-trading”.

“Without a doubt, the political earthquake that occurred today calls on us all to speed up the process for a definitive government solution so our country can have an experienced hand at its helm as soon as possible.”

Jubilant New Democracy supporters massed outside party headquarters in Athens, cheering and waving party flags.

A second election, likely to be held in late June or early July, would be conducted under a new electoral law that gives bonus seats to the winning party, making it easier for it to form a government on its own.

Sunday’s election was Greece’s first since its economy ceased being under strict supervision by international lenders who had provided bailout funds during the country’s nearly decadelong financial crisis.

Syriza head Alexis Tsipras, 48, served as prime minister during some of the most tumultuous years of the crisis, and has struggled to regain the wide support he enjoyed when he was swept to power in 2015 on a promise of reversing bailout-imposed austerity measures.

He called Mitsotakis on Sunday night to congratulate him on his victory.

“The result is exceptionally negative for Syriza,” Tsipras said in initial statements after his party’s dramatic defeat became clear. “Fights have winners and losers.”

Tsipras said his party would gather to examine the results and how they came about. “However, the electoral cycle is not yet over,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of time. We must immediately carry out all the changes that are needed so we can fight the next crucial and final electoral battle with the best terms possible.”

As the massive gap between the first two parties became apparent, Syriza supporters expressed dismay.

“I am very sorry about the terrible state of these people (who voted for New Democracy),” said Syriza supporter Georgi Koulouri, standing near a Syriza campaign kiosk in central Athens. “People who understand their position — the poverty and the misery that they have been put into — and still vote for them, they deserve what they get.”

Mitsotakis, a 55-year-old Harvard-educated former banking executive, won elections in 2019 on a promise of business-oriented reforms and has vowed to continue tax cuts, boost investments and bolster middle class employment.

A steady lead he had enjoyed in opinion polls in the runup to the election slid following a Feb. 28 rail disaster that killed 57 people. Authorities said an intercity passenger train was accidentally put on the same rail line as an oncoming freight train, and it later was revealed that train stations were poorly staffed and safety infrastructure broken and outdated.

The government also was battered by a surveillance scandal in which journalists and prominent Greek politicians discovered spyware on their phones. The revelations deepened mistrust among the country’s political parties.

Syriza’s campaign focused heavily on both the wiretapping scandal and the train crash.

Greece’s once-dominant Pasok party, overtaken by Syriza during Greece’s 2009-2018 financial crisis, also fared well in Sunday’s vote, garnering just over 11%. Its leader, Nikos Androulakis, 44, was at the center of the wiretapping scandal in which his phone was targeted for surveillance.

Androulakis’ poor relationship with Mitsotakis, whom he accuses of covering up the wiretapping scandal, mean a potential coalition deal with the conservatives would be difficult. His relationship with Tsipras is also poor after he accused him of trying to poach Pasok voters.

Since coming to power in 2019, Mitsotakis has delivered unexpectedly high growth, a steep drop in unemployment and a country on the brink of returning to investment grade on the global bond market for the first time since it lost market access in 2010 at the outset of the financial crisis.

Debts to the International Monetary Fund were paid off early. European governments and the IMF pumped 280 billion euros ($300 billion) into the Greek economy in emergency loans between 2010 and 2018 to prevent the eurozone member from bankruptcy. In return, they demanded punishing cost-cutting measures and reforms that saw the country’s economy shrink by a quarter.