Jubilant supporters of Alexis Tsipras's left-wing SYRIZA party cheered, waved party flags and danced Sunday after the party comfortably won Greece's third national vote this year despite a rebellion within his party over his acceptance of a painful third international bailout.
With 44 percent of the vote counted, SYRIZA stood at 35.5 percent, with the conservative New Democracy at 28 percent while the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn was coming in third with 7.1 percent, followed closely by the once-mighty socialist PASOK party with 6.3 percent. Abstention was high, at nearly 45 percent in an election-weary country with a traditionally high voter turnout.
Although SYRIZA was projected as falling short of an absolute majority in the 300-member parliament, Tsipras was expected to form a coalition government with relative ease. His former coalition partner, the small nationalist Independent Greeks, was set to win just above the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament, while centrist parties have indicated they would agree to a coalition to ensure repeat elections aren't necessary.
New Democracy head Vangelis Meimarakis conceded defeat and called for a government to be formed quickly.
"The election result appears to be forming comprehensively with SYRIZA and Mr. Tsipras coming first," Meimarakis said. "I congratulate him and call on him to form the government that is necessary, and bring the (proposal) to parliament."
A total of eight parties appeared set to win parliamentary seats. The new anti-bailout Popular Unity party, formed by rebel SYRIZA members who objected to Tsipras's agreement to a third bailout for Greece, was projected to fall just shy of the 3 percent parliamentary threshold.
A tired-looking Tsipras was hugged by party supporters as he arrived at SYRIZA headquarters, waving to the crowd gathered outside.
"What a result! It's hard to describe. Tsipras will fight for the people – for Greece and for Europe," said Maria Nixa, a 58-year-old private company employee celebrating outside SYRIZA's main election campaign booth in central Athens.
Retiree Antonis Antonios, 75, echoed her sentiments.
"It's a great and hopeful result. We are moving forward. I am waiting for the next government to put up a fight," he said. "They are the only ones capable of a brave struggle."
It is the third time this year Greeks have voted, after January elections that brought Tsipras to power on an anti-bailout platform, and a July referendum he called urging voters to reject creditor reform proposals.
The 41-year-old former prime minister triggered the election by resigning in August, barely seven months into his four-year term, after facing the SYRIZA rebellion over his policy U-turn in accepting the spending cuts and tax hikes stipulated by the bailout.
SYRIZA member and former energy minister Panos Skourletis applauded the result.
"It is the first time a party brings in a tough bailout deal and is rewarded," he said on private Alpha television. "Until now, the electorate was clearly anti-bailout."
Former Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos said stability lay ahead for Greece.
"I think we will be the (first) party," he said on Star television. "I can't say that it will be a government for four years, but I can say that it is very unlikely that there will be elections in the next 12 months."
Tsipras has argued he had no choice but to accept the demands of European creditors for more tax hikes and spending cuts in return for Greece's third rescue, a three-year package worth 86 billion euros ($97 billion). Without it, Greece – which has relied on international rescue loans since 2010 – faced bankruptcy and a potentially disastrous exit from Europes joint currency.
Tsipras had called on Greeks to give the next government a strong mandate that will allow it to govern for a full four-year term and to "continue with the same decisiveness, the same self-denial to fight the battles for the defense of our peoples rights, not only in Europe but this time within the country too."
The pre-election campaign was lackluster and somewhat muted – a far cry from the frenetic, high-stakes January campaign, which pitted the anti-bailout Tsipras against centrist parties that argued the deal with other eurozone countries was the country's best chance for an eventual return to some form of economic normalcy in a country ravaged by recession and with unemployment at around 25 percent.
Now, the policies for the winner have already been set in the bailout deal, and the anti-austerity camp has been reduced to Golden Dawn, Popular Unity and the Communist Party.
Some voters, who had hoped that Tsipras would make good on his promises to end austerity and get a better deal out of Greece's creditors have been so disappointed that they chose to abstain this time and, perhaps, in the future.
"I'm not going to vote again until I go to my grave," said Giorgos Papantonopoulos, 57, a taxi driver. "I was a conservative and a New Democracy member. I voted for Tsipras in January so he could make good on his promises."
Meimarakis's campaign had centered on a return to stability. He painted Tsipras as a reckless, inexperienced politician who led the country toward a potential catastrophe and introduced strict banking restrictions in an effort to stem a bank run.
SYRIZA's campaign focused on doing away with the staid and often corrupt politics of the past.
The new government will have little time to waste. Creditors are expected to review progress of reforms as part of the bailout next month, while the government will also have to draft the 2016 state budget, overhaul the pension system, raise a series of taxes, including on farmers, carry out privatizations and merge social security funds.
It must also oversee a critical bank recapitalization program, without which depositors with over 100,000 euros ($113,000) in their accounts will be forced to contribute.