ATHENS, Greece -- For the first time in more than a decade, Greeks will go to the polls today to elect a leader no longer confined to steering the country's economy from a back seat.
Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seeking a second term after a regime of spending controls ordered by international bailout lenders ended last summer.
The clean-cut Harvard graduate delivered high growth, a steep drop in unemployment and a country on the brink of returning to investment grade on the global bond market. Debts to the International Monetary Fund were paid off early.
A landslide reelection for the 55-year-old Mitsotakis was once seen as a foregone conclusion. But his center-right New Democracy party could struggle to return to power as Greece's voters and political parties emerge from a prolonged battle for survival.
On an unseasonably hot day in central Athens, taxi driver Christina Messari waited patiently in start-stop traffic near Greece's parliament, where tourists wheeled bags around giant crimson banners set up by the Greek Communist Party for its main election rally.
"The last four years have been like looking at a heart monitor: Up then down ... when business improves, prices go up, so you stay in the same place," the 49-year-old said.
European governments and the IMF pumped $300 billion into the Greek economy between 2010 and 2018 to prevent the eurozone member from going bankrupt. In return, they demanded punishing cost-cutting measures and reforms.
A severe recession and years of emergency borrowing left Greece with a whopping national debt that reached $432.7 billion last December and hammered household incomes that will likely need another decade to recover.
Left exhausted after the bailout-era political and economic turmoil, ordinary Greeks sank into private debt, low wages and job insecurity.
Messari lost her bakery business during the crisis before joining her husband as a cab driver. During pandemic lockdowns, they switched to parcel delivery to make ends meet.
"I think things have to change so that people can live with some dignity and not just work to cover their basic expenses and pay taxes," she said.
Mitsotakis lost a long-standing double-digit lead in opinion polls after a Feb. 28 rail disaster that killed 57 people, many of them university students -- battering the government narrative of acting as business-oriented modernizers.
The European Parliament is also investigating a surveillance scandal after prominent Greek politicians and journalists discovered spyware on their phones. The revelations deepened mistrust among the country's political parties at a time when consensus may be badly needed.
A WIDE FIELD
Six political parties are set to gain national representation, ranging from NATO-skeptic nationalists to a Communist Party vocal in its admiration of the Soviet Union 32 years after its collapse.
The far-right Greeks Party, founded by a jailed former lawmaker with a history of neo-Nazi activity, was banned from participating by the Supreme Court.
Leading the opposition is 48-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a former prime minister and leader of the left-wing Syriza party. His campaign has focused heavily on the rail disaster and wiretapping scandal.
Opinion polls indicate that today's election won't produce an outright winner under a newly introduced system of proportional representation. A second election in early July may be needed, when the system would revert to one that favors the winning party with a seat-bonus in parliament.
Even then, current polling data suggests Mitsotakis may be forced into a coalition, with the socialist Pasok party -- that almost disappeared during the crisis -- potentially holding the balance of power.
"We don't have a consensus culture in our political system, it's more zero-sum: If you lose, I win," said Thodoris Georgakopoulos, editorial director of diaNEOsis, an independent think tank in Athens.
Greece, he argued, has a rare opportunity to forge bipartisan decision-making, with the three largest political parties, New Democracy, Syriza and Pasok, all publicly committed to fiscal responsibility and deeper European Union integration.
A grace period of relatively low annual repayment bills for bailout loans will last another 10 years, he said: "By then, we must have figured out a new productive model for the country."
He added: "Many of our most important reforms have been left till last, in the justice system, education and the health sector, because they will be the most difficult. The challenge in these elections will be to find the consensus needed among the country's political forces so that these very difficult reforms can be carried out."
More than 9.8 million Greeks are eligible to vote in today's general election for 300 lawmakers in the unicameral parliament who serve a four-year term. The voting age will be lowered to 17 for the first time, while in another first, Greek citizens living abroad will also be allowed to vote in their country of residence.
The Interior Ministry estimates that 80% of the vote at 22,000 voting precincts will be counted by 2 p.m.