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Conservatives riding high into Greek local election

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Athens (AFP)

Greeks voted in municipal elections on Sunday, with the conservative opposition set to make more gains against Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's ruling left just a month before they face off in general elections.

The New Democracy party will be hoping to repeat its performance in last month's European election when it took 33 percent of the vote -- nine points more than the ruling Syriza party.

That unexpectedly poor result prompted Tsipras, a socialist who has overseen austerity measures since the Greek debt crisis, to call parliamentary elections for July 7, three months earlier than scheduled.

Sunday sees the second round run-off of voting for city mayors and regional governors.

In the first round of local and regional elections in May, New Democracy won five of Greece's 13 regions, while the left took just one.

Analysts say the leftists appear set to lose control of the capital, Athens, and the second city of Thessaloniki in the north. Another key region at risk is Attica province.

Polls close at 1600 GMT and preliminary results for cities are expected around 1900 GMT.

"Hope has returned, it is revenge... against the populism of Tsipras," the opposition-leaning daily To Vima wrote in one of its front page headlines.

Tsipras urged voters to chose the "mayors of progress" calling Sunday's vote a "crucial" choice in a statement to reporters after voting in Kypseli, a working-class neighbourhood in Athens.

- Risk in capital -

Costas Bakoyannis, a former provincial governor, is expected to win the Athens mayor's office, held by a leftist mayor. He won 42 percent of the votes in the first round, beating his rival, leftist Nassos Iliopoulos by more than 25 points.

The third generation of a right-wing political family, Bakoyannis is the son of Dora Bakoyannis, the first woman elected as Athens mayor in 2003.

For the Attica province, which includes the capital, conservative Yiorgos Patoulis, a former mayor, is also poised to win. In the first round he won 37.6 percent against his Syriza rival Rena Dourou with 19.7 percent.

In the Thessaloniki region, conservative Apostolos Tzitzikostas already won in the first round by taking 62 percent of the vote.

Observers attribute the conservative resurgence in part to a controversial renaming deal between Greece and its neighbour which is now called North Macedonia, formerly Macedonia.

Backed by Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, the deal ended a long-running dispute between the two countries.

The dispute dated back to North Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, when it declared that it wanted to be called Macedonia over the objections of Greece, which has a northern province by the same name.

The resolution of the deal meant Athens dropped its opposition to its neighbour's bid to join the European Union, but the agreement has been denounced by nationalists in both countries.

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