ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday called parliamentary elections for May 21, saying he wanted a clean slate to push through further reforms after four years at the helm.
But a deadly rail disaster last month as well as runaway inflation that has left many people struggling to pay their bills has stirred public anger, and helped to erode his New Democracy Party's lead over the opposition leftist party Syriza.
The vote is now unlikely to produce a clear winner, setting the stage for protracted political manouevring and a runoff vote.
"The country and its citizens need clear horizons...the national elections will be held at the end of the four-year term, as I had committed from the start," Mitsotakis, whose term ends in July, told a televised cabinet meeting.
A new electoral system, setting the bar high on winning an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament, means the May 21 poll is unlikely to be conclusive and a second round of voting may have to take place by early July.
Reflecting market unease at an extended election period, the Greek stockmarket turned negative on the announcement.
"Polls don't show what the market wants, (which is) a majority government from the first election," said Takis Zamanis, senior asset manager at Beta Securities in Athens.
Should one party fail to win outright, a fallback would be attempting to cobble together a coalition among Greece's fractious political parties.
If that fails a second round of voting - under a slightly tweaked electoral system giving frontrunners bonus seats - would be needed.
DISASTER STRUCK CHORD
The rail disaster on the Athens-Thessaloniki route, which killed 57 people, led to protests over the safety shortcomings of an underfunded and poorly maintained network, the legacy of a decade-long financial crisis which ended in 2018.
Mitsotakis said the "painful and traumatic" experience of the disaster highlighted deficiencies the state still had.
"Overturning all these is a clear priority for the next day," Mitsotakis said.
Analysts say the disaster turned a perception of Mitsotakis's administration as getting things done on its head.
"Public fury and negative emotions have multiplied, and hit the main narrative of this government, which was that it changed Greece," pollster Costas Panagopoulos told Reuters.
"It will be crucial to see whether a protest vote will prevail, or if the government narrative of stability will," Panagopoulos, head of Alco polling agency, said.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, whom Mitsotakis unseated in 2019, said the days of New Democracy in government were numbered.
"This adventure is coming to an end. Just a few more weeks of patience," he said.
Syriza has said it is open to taking part in a coalition government, as has the Socialist PASOK, on condition that Mitsotakis or Tsipras are not prime ministers. The present administration oversaw an increase in social inequalities, an undermining of the rule of law and corruption, its leader Nikos Androulakis said.
"Today he announced the end of his failure of a government," Androulakis said.
(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Alex Richardson, Bernadette Baum, Alexandra Hudson and Angus MacSwan)