The governing party of Greece’s conservative prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was way ahead of the opposition in the general election on Sunday but falling short of the majority required to secure another term, setting the stage for another election in weeks, since Mr. Mitsotakis appeared to rule out forming a coalition government.
Mr. Mitsotakis described the preliminary outcome as a “political earthquake” that called for an “experienced hand to the helm” of Greece, and said that any negotiations with fractious potential coalition partners would only lead to a dead end.
With 93.7 percent of the votes counted on Sunday night and his party, New Democracy, leading the opposition Syriza by 20 percentage points, Mr. Mitsotakis greeted a crowd of cheering supporters outside his party’s office in Athens.
“We kept the country upright and we’ve laid the foundations for a better nation,” he said. “We will fight the next battle together so that at the next elections what we already decided on, an autonomous New Democracy, will be realized.”
New Democracy had captured 40.8 percent of the votes by Sunday night, preliminary results showed, after calling on Greeks to opt for economic and political stability over “chaos” in a tense campaign. The center-left Syriza party, led by Alexis Tsipras, under whose tenure Greece came close to leaving the eurozone in 2015, landed in second place, with 20 percent of the votes. The socialist Pasok-Kinal party took third place, securing 11.6 percent.
Mr. Tsipras said in a statement that he had called to congratulate Mr. Mitsotakis on his victory, and that his party would convene to discuss the result given that a second election appeared all but assured.
On Monday, when the final result is clear, the leading party will get a mandate to try to form a government. But it appeared most likely that the prime minister will not explore that option, leading to a new election, most likely in June or early July. That vote would be held under a different system, which grants bonus seats to the winning party, giving New Democracy a better chance of forming an independent government.
New Democracy appeared to be on track to win 145 seats in the 300-seat Parliament, with 72 seats for Syriza, preliminary results showed. Syriza’s poor performance spurred speculation in the Greek news media about the center-left party’s future.
“It reflects the utter collapse of Syriza’s strategy, its perpetual rightward drift, a hegemonic position on the left that deepened confusion and demoralization,” said Seraphim Seferiades, an associate professor of politics and history at Panteion University in Athens.
He also noted the high abstention in the vote, over 40 percent: Turnout stood at 60 percent, preliminary results showed.
The absence of an outright winner had been expected, since the election was conducted under a system of simple proportional representation, which makes it hard for a single party to take power.
Three factors added to the ambiguity: the one in 10 undecided voters; the roughly 440,000 young people who were eligible to vote for the first time; and the 3 percent of the electorate that had backed a party founded by the jailed spokesman of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which was banned from running.
In his campaign speech in Athens on Friday night, Mr. Mitsotakis pointed to his government’s success in increasing growth (now at twice the eurozone average), attracting investment and bolstering the country’s defenses amid a testy period with neighboring Turkey.
“This is not the time for experiments that lead nowhere,” he said, adding that achieving an investment grade rating, which would allow Greece to lower its borrowing costs, required a stable government.
Mr. Mitsotakis was also unapologetic about Greece’s tough stance on migration, which has included heightened border controls and has led to a 90 percent drop in migrant arrivals since 2015. While his government has come under fire by human rights groups for illegally pushing back migrants at sea and creating camps with prisonlike conditions, many Greeks have welcomed the reduced influx. Migrants overwhelmed Greece’s resources at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis.
“Greece has borders, and those borders must be guarded,” Mr. Mitsotakis declared on Friday to a crowd of cheering supporters waving Greek flags.
Mr. Tsipras, for his part, had campaigned for change. He highlighted a perceived abuse of power by the current administration, including a wiretapping scandal, and drew attention to the rising cost of living, which opinion polls show is most voters’ key concern.
Before casting his ballot on Sunday, Mr. Tsipras called on Greeks to “leave behind an arrogant government that doesn’t feel the needs of the many.”
His message was convincing to Elisavet Dimou, 17, who voted for the first time on Sunday in a central Athens school. She said she had been swayed by Syriza’s promise of “change” and “justice.”
“Syriza made mistakes, too, but they didn’t spy on half the country,” she said, referring to reports that the wiretapping scandal had swept up dozens of politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs.
Another factor in her choice of Syriza was the fatal train crash in central Greece in February that killed 57 people, including many students. “They had their whole lives ahead of them, and they died because those in power didn’t care enough to fix the trains,” she said.
Public outrage over the crash briefly dented New Democracy’s lead in opinion polls, but that edged back up as supporters were apparently comforted by promises of continued stability and prosperity.
One supporter, Sakis Farantakis, a 54-year-old hair salon owner, said: “They’re far from perfect, but it’s the only safe choice. We’ve moved on; why go backwards to uncertainty?”
Mr. Mitsotakis has argued that a one-party government would be preferable to a coalition deal to ensure stability and reassure investors. Economic growth has taken hold in Greece after a decade-long financial crisis that ended in 2018.
He has little choice of partners. The socialist Pasok party had been regarded as the only realistic candidate for a coalition with New Democracy. But Mr. Mitsotakis’s admission last year that Greece’s state surveillance agency had spied on Pasok’s leader, Nikos Androulakis, strained ties between the men and cast a shadow over any prospects for cooperation.
A leftist-led administration had been another possibility. Syriza had been courting Pasok for a coalition that would most likely require a third party, probably Mera25. That party, led by Yanis Varoufakis, Mr. Tsipras’s former finance minister, appeared not to have gained a foothold in Parliament with most of the votes counted..
Mr. Androulakis had kept his intentions unclear, declaring that both parties were unreliable and that neither Mr. Mitsotakis nor Mr. Tsipras should lead any coalition government. Mr. Androulakis called to congratulate Mr. Mitsotakis late Sunday.