By ELENA BECATOROS, Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greeks began voting at precisely 7 a.m. local time (0400 GMT, 12 a.m. EDT) in their most critical — and uncertain — election in decades, with voters set to punish the two main parties that are being held responsible for the country's dire economic straits.
Thirty-two parties vie for the votes of nearly 10 million registered voters, many of whom, according to recent polls, were undecided on the eve of the election. Abstention, once projected to reach historic highs but seen rising in recent opinion surveys, will be crucial to the final outcome. In the last national election, in October 2009, just over 70 percent of the registered voters went to the polls.
Such is the disillusionment with the socialist PASOK party and conservative New Democracy, which have been alternating in power for the last 38 years, that neither is expected to garner enough votes to form a government. Days of wrangling over forming a coalition will likely ensue, with the prospect — alarming to Greece's lenders and much of the country's population — of another round of elections if they fail.
Public anger has been so high that politicians have been forced to maintain low-profile campaigns for fear of physical attacks on the streets in a country battered by business closures and hundreds of thousands of job losses.
The last opinion polls published before a two-week blackout ahead of the election showed PASOK and New Democracy hemorrhaging support since the last election in 2009. Their support has reached historic lows, plunging to percentages last seen in the mid-1970s for the socialists and to historic lows for New Democracy, whose previous low of 33.47 percent was reached in the crushing defeat of 2009.
The stakes couldn't be higher.
Entirely dependent on billions of euros worth of international rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund, Greece must impose yet more austerity measures next month, if it is to keep the money flowing and prevent a default and a potentially disastrous exit from the euro.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras is expected to come in first, benefiting from a bonus 50 seats in the 300-member parliament. But even with that he would fall far short of the 151 seats needed to form a government. Opinion polls projected him winning not more than 25.5 percent.
PASOK, which stormed to victory in the last parliamentary election in 2009 with 43.92 percent and George Papandreou at its helm, has seen its support collapse over the past two years. Now headed by former finance minister Evangelos Venizelos, it is fighting off a challenge by anti-bailout left-wing parties, with opinion polls projecting PASOK to win between 14.5 and 19 percent. If that happens, it would be the lowest since November 1974, when the party won 13.5 percent just two months after being founded.
Venizelos warned that Greece faces default and mass poverty if voters back anti-bailout parties.
"Sunday will decide whether we remain in Europe and the euro, and we stay on a course that is difficult but safe, after having covered most of the distance, to finally emerge from the crisis and (austerity)," he said during his final campaign rally in central Athens on Friday night.
"Or it will (determine) whether we embark on an adventure, sliding back many decades and taking the country to default, to leave Greeks facing mass poverty."
Repeated rounds of tax increases and reductions of salaries and pensions over the past two years have seen the country mired in a fifth year of recession and unemployment spiral to above 21 percent. The backlash has seen voters turn to smaller groups and mostly anti-bailout offshoots created by disgruntled deputies who rebelled rather than vote in favor of the measures.
"This whole situation has destroyed our dreams," said Haris Manolis, a worker at a steel factory where employees have been on strike for six months to protest layoffs and wage cuts. "We have no more dreams. We have one: to overturn them so that we can make new ones. That's it."
Up to an unprecedented 10 parties have been projected to win more than the 3 percent minimum threshold for a parliamentary seat. That includes the extreme right Golden Dawn, which has been riding high on the emotive issue of illegal immigration, promising to clean up crime-ridden, ghetto-like city neighborhoods and mine the country's borders to stop more migrants getting in.