As Greece goes to the polls, scandal, disaster and apathy eat into PM’s lead

With the Acropolis behind him, Kyriakos Mitsotakis ascends to the podium amid thunderous music and the cackle of whistles and horns. It is the last rally of the last day of his re-election campaign before polls open on Sunday, and the prime minister is in a combative mood.

“Do we want stability or continuous uncertainty?” he asks. “That is the dilemma we are being called to answer.” It is a question that has dominated an election that Mitsotakis once thought he had in the bag.

Four years ago, when the 55-year-old former financier stood in the same spot in Athens, punching the air, his victory had been a foregone conclusion. The landslide win for his New Democracy party was not only welcomed across the EU but brought an end to a rollercoaster decade of fragile coalition governments spawned by the nation’s debt crisis. And, on the back of Mitsotakis’s policy platform, the polls spoke, consistently giving his centre-right party the lead over leftwing Syriza, the main opposition.

But winning a second term in office has proved less easy than Mitsotakis envisaged.

A phone-tapping scandal that brought back memories of the surveillance during Greece’s 1967-74 dictatorship provided ample ammunition for critics. Then in February, just when it seemed that crisis could be contained, a train crash in central Greece provoked fury. Fifty-seven people died in the collision and resulting fire – many of them students – in a tragedy that seemed to expose state incompetence as never before. The prime minister’s modernising narrative had been shattered.

“Mitsotakis has always presented himself as a liberal and a reformist but he became vulnerable at the 11th hour,” said Prof Aristides Hatzis, who teaches law at the University of Athens. “[Both events] undermined his liberal credentials and reformist efficacy.”

In the wake of the rail disaster on 28 February, the Harvard-educated Mitsotakis was forced to delay calling the election. When he did so a month later, his government’s standing had been severely dented, with thousands taking to the streets in protest. That, combined with a new electoral system of proportional representation, has ensured Sunday’s ballot will be more unpredictable than most, even if New Democracy has regained some of its lost ground.

Helena Smith