Conservative party takes helm of troubled Greek economy

Kyriakos Mitsotakis' New Democracy party won 39.8% of the vote, giving him 158 seats in the Greek parliament, a comfortable governing majority.

Petros Giannakouris/AP
Greek New Democracy conservative party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis addresses supporters in Athens on July 7, 2019. He will be sworn in as the new prime minister July 8.

Conservative party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is to be sworn in as Greece's new prime minister Monday, a day after his resounding win over left-wing Alexis Tsipras, who led the country through the tumultuous final years of its international bailouts.

Mr. Mitsotakis' New Democracy party won 39.8% of the vote, giving him 158 seats in the 300-member parliament, a comfortable governing majority. Tsipras' Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, garnered 31.5%. The extremist right-wing Golden Dawn, Greece's third largest party during the height of the financial crisis, failed to make the 3% threshold to enter parliament.

Mr. Mitsotakis will have to move fast to deal with the myriad of problems still plaguing the economy. Europe's finance ministers are meeting in Brussels on Monday and will be discussing Greece, which still has stringent fiscal targets to meet even though it doesn't directly receive bailout loans.

"I assume the governance of the country with full awareness of the national responsibility," Mr. Mitsotakis said in his victory speech Sunday night. "I know of the difficulties that lie ahead for me and for my associates. But I draw strength from the strength of the people."

Greece's economy shrank by a quarter and poverty and unemployment levels soared during the country's nearly decade-long financial crisis. Although its finances are on the mend and the economy is expected to grow by 2.2% this year, it still has a long way to go to make up the economic output lost.

The country's debt stands at about 181% of annual GDP and has pledged to continue producing large primary surpluses – the budget excluding debt servicing – for years to come.

Mr. Mitsotakis said Sunday he would stick to his campaign pledges of lowering taxes, attracting investments and cutting through red tape to make Greece more business-friendly.

Golden Dawn, the far-right, anti-immigrant party that had shocked Greek politics by evolving from a marginal, violent neo-Nazi group into Greece's third-largest party during the country's economic crisis, was knocked out of Parliament in Sunday's national election.

With nearly 95 percent of precincts reporting, Golden Dawn had 2.95% of the votes, just under the 3 percent threshold needed to be represented in Parliament.

The government's official pollster declared that the party had no chance to enter Parliament, and party leader Nikos Mihaloliakos admitted as much when he declared in a fiery concession speech that "Golden Dawn is not finished."

Golden Dawn had 18 lawmakers in the outgoing 300-member Parliament, having won 6.99% of the votes in the last national election, in September 2015.

"We are sending a message to our enemies and so-called friends: Golden Dawn is not finished; get over it. The fight for nationalism continues. We return where we became strong: on the streets and squares, in a tough struggle against Bolshevism and the coming savage capitalism," Mihaloliakos told a crowd of supporters.

He attacked both the outgoing prime minister, leftist Alexis Tsipras, and his incoming successor, conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Mihaloliakos ended his speech with his customary "Hail victory!" – a direct reference to the Nazis' "Sieg heil" salutation.

Founded in 1985, Golden Dawn was known for years as a collection of violent youths obsessed with military bearing and ready to attack political opponents and then increasingly migrants, as Greece became a destination for the latter.

Golden Dawn's appeal long remained insignificant, polling just 0.29% in the October 2009 election. But as Greece's economic crisis unfolded, the party achieved a breakthrough in 2010 municipal elections, getting its first elected officials and scoring best in neighborhoods with a heavy migrant presence.

It won its first seats in Parliament in 2012, and in four successive national elections held from 2012 to 2015 it got around 7% of the votes. Its high point came in the 2014 European elections, when it polled 9.39% to become Greece's third-largest party – a position it retained national elections held in January and September 2015.

Golden Dawn's weakening become apparent in May's European election, when it got only 4.87% and slipped into fifth place among Greece's parties. A new party on the far right, Greek Solution, less extreme and apparently less menacing, may have siphoned away rightist support. It is projected to have 10 seats in the new Parliament.

Golden Dawn also faces potential legal problems. A trial at which one member is accused of murdering an activist musician in September 2013 and several prominent party officials, including Mr. Mihaloliakos, face charges of operating a criminal organization is wrapping up and any convictions would hit the party hard.

Still, many doubt Golden Dawn will shrink back to its previous marginal status. In the European elections, the party's share of the vote among 17- to 24-year-olds was about 13%.

Some recent statements by prominent party leader Ilias Kasidiaris, until recently also a lawmaker and a candidate for mayor of Athens in May, indicate that Golden Dawn may seek to rebrand itself as a less extreme organization, aligned with European euroskeptic or alt-right forces.

He has expressed admiration for Italy's anti-immigrant deputy premier, Mateo Salvini, and spoken favorably of the largely euroskeptic Eastern European "Visegrad countries" – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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