The January 25 vote marks a showdown between the conservative New Democracy party of prime minister Antonis Samaras, who imposed unpopular budget cuts under Greece’s international bailout deal, and the radical leftist Syriza of Alexis Tsipras, who wants to cancel austerity along with a chunk of Greek debt.
Syriza holds a lead over New Democracy in polls, although this has narrowed to only about three percentage points in the run-up to the election, called after parliament failed to elect a new Greek president.
Neither may be able to form a government alone, even with a 50 seat-bonus that the constitution automatically awards to the biggest party in the 300-seat chamber, leaving one or more of the smaller groups to shape the final outcome.
Dominated for decades by New Democracy and the Socialist Pasok party, Greek politics have been reshaped by the debt crisis that forced the country to accept two bailouts worth €240bn from the EU and IMF. In return, they demanded harsh measures, which entrenched anger against the old order.
One of the parties most likely to hold the balance of power is To Potami (The River), a recently created centrist group which has refused to define itself as pro- or anti-bailout. The other is Pasok, which was in Samaras’s outgoing coalition despite taking an electoral thrashing in 2012, and is now expected to split.
“Small parties were on the sidelines in the past but now will be the determining factor in the coming election,” said a senior official from the Pasok faction that is expected to break away in the coming days.
Two small anti-bailout parties, the Democratic Left and Independent Greeks, are possible allies for Syriza.
However, the Democratic Left is not expected to win 3% of the popular vote, the minimum required to enter parliament, and may be absorbed by Syriza before the election. The right-wing Independent Greeks would make unusual allies for Syriza, with which they have little in common apart from dislike of the bailout deal.