Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos leaves the booth to cast his vote at at a voting center , in Athens, Sunday, May 6, 2012. Greeks cast their ballots on Sunday in their most critical and uncertain elections in decades, with voters seemingly set to punish the two main parties that are being held responsible for the country's dire economic straits.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greeks hammered by two years of deep spending cuts voted Sunday in a parliamentary election critical to the country's prospects for pulling itself out of a deep financial crisis that has roiled global markets and threatened Greece's position in the eurozone.
The result is highly uncertain, with angry voters broadly expected to punish the two main parties that have dominated the country's political scene for decades. The last public opinion polls before a two-week ban went into effect showed both the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties hemorrhaging support to a constellation of smaller parties, several formed by rebellious deputies.
The election is unlikely to produce any clear winner, leaving the party with the most votes to seek coalition partners to form a government. Opinion polls ahead of the vote indicated the leading party would be New Democracy, headed by Antonis Samaras — who has insisted he will not enter into a coalition with his Socialist rivals and warned that a coalition government would require too much haggling to be effective.
The leading party will have three days to form a government, after which the mandate will go to the second party for a further three days, and then to the third party. If none can form a coalition government, the country will head to new elections — a prospect that worries Greece's international lenders. If, on the other hand, a government is formed, Parliament will convene on May 17.
Greece is heavily dependent on billions of euros worth of international rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund, and it must impose yet more austerity measures next month to keep the bailout dollars flowing and prevent a default and a potentially disastrous exit from the group of nations who use the euro currency.
Thirty-two parties are vying for the support of nearly 10 million registered voters, many of whom were undecided on the eve of the election.
The level of voter turnout will be crucial to the final outcome. In the last national election, in October 2009, just over 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls, a low figure by historical standards.
Early indications showed that turnout could be larger this time. Voting is compulsory in Greece, but penalties for failing to vote are no longer enforced.
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.
Socialist leader and former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who helped negotiate Greece's bailout and a massive bond swap to reduce national debt, was heckled on his way to a polling station in northern Greece by residents in nearby apartment buildings. Some shouted slogans such as "Thieves Out!"
After voting, Venizelos said the election is the most important development in Greece since 1974, when the nation emerged from a seven-year military dictatorship.
New Democracy's Samaras also emphasized what was at stake.
"The Greek people vote today for the future of their children. ... They vote for stability, growth, security and justice," Samaras said after casting his ballot.
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.
Headed by Venizelos since March, it is fighting off a strong 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.
"Today, after two and a half years of barbarism, democracy at last returns to its birthplace," said Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, an amalgam of former Communist Party members that is predicted to make strong gains.
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.
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 from getting in.
"People are not choosing smaller parties because they believe in their agendas," political communications expert Spiros Rizopoulos said. "I doubt if anyone has ever read an agenda of a smaller party. It's because they want to protest a decision that has been made" that led Greece into the bailouts and the ensuing austerity.
For the past six months, New Democracy and PASOK have been uneasy bedfellows in a coalition government cobbled together under technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. The former European Central Bank deputy head was appointed after Papandreou was forced to resign following a sudden decision to put the country's second bailout to a referendum.
The coalition, which initially also included a small right-wing party, was formed with the sole mandate of securing the country's second bailout and the bond swap deal with private creditors.
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.