ATHENS - Greece began voting Sunday in a crucial general election that could bring the anti-austerity Syriza party to power and lead to a re-negotiation of the country's international bailout.
Syriza, led by 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, leads the incumbent conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras by around four points, according to pre-election opinion polls.
Some 9.8 million people are eligible to vote. Polling stations close at 1700 GMT, followed immediately by the results of exit polls.
Tsipras wants to renegotiate Greece's massive 318 billion euro (S$479 billion) debt and end the wage cuts and public spending reductions linked to its bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
The possibility of a victory for the radical left-wing party has sparked fears that Greece could default on its debt repayments and quit the group of 19 countries using the single European currency - a so-called "Grexit".
Elli, a 20-year-old student casting her ballot in the middle-class Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni, said she would vote for Syriza, but admitted she had concerns.
"I was undecided until this morning because I'm afraid that the outcome of a Syriza win could be a default," she told AFP.
"We need to stay in Europe." Yannis Papacostas, a 50-year-old self-employed man, said he wanted the Greek people to "wake up" after six years of economic hardship.
"The worst scenario is that the parties will not cooperate," he said. He said he would vote for To Potami (The River), a new party that could form part of a coalition government.
Tsipras has pledged to restore "dignity" to Greece and confront the so-called troika - the EU, IMF and European Central Bank (ECB) - which imposed the conditions linked to a 240 billion euro bailout deal that began in 2010.
The Syriza leader says Greece has been put in an "unsustainable" position, forced to make spiralling debt repayments while the economy shrinks.
The IMF, meanwhile, has warned Greece that failure to repay its debts will carry "consequences". German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is seen as the driving force in the EU's austerity drive, said she hoped Greece would stay in the eurozone.
"I want Greece, despite the difficulties, to remain part of our story," Merkel said Friday.
Greece has seen a rapid economic decline since the eurozone crisis began, pushing unemployment above 25 per cent.
Samaras argues it would be disastrous if voters bring Syriza to power just as the fiscal reforms he has supported could be about to bear fruit. The 63-year-old Harvard-educated prime minister came to power after back-to-back elections in 2012 that routed the once-dominant Pasok socialist party.
Samaras initially argued for an easing of the terms of the bailout, but once in office he agreed to implement the deep cuts demanded by lenders.
He took a gamble last December by attempting to push forward a presidential election, but when lawmakers failed to agree on a candidate he was forced to call parliamentary elections.
Tsipras, a middle-class boy from Athens who trained as a civil engineer, says Syriza wants to smash the "oligarchy" that has traditionally dominated Greek politics and the media.
A Syriza official told AFP on Saturday the party was confident of victory.
If it fails to gain the 151 parliamentary seats needed for an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament it believes it would have little difficulty in forming a coalition government, the official said.
"Polls show we are five to 10 points ahead of New Democracy. What remains to be seen is whether we will have a clear majority," he added.
A likely coalition partner is To Potami, a pro-European party founded last year by investigative journalist Stavros Theodorakis.
Tsipras has said he wants to slash the debt in half and reach a new deal with the ECB by July.
A victory for Syriza could pave the way for other anti-austerity parties to break through in Europe. The leader of Spain's radical Podemos movement, Pablo Iglesias, appeared with Tsipras at his final campaign rally in Athens on Thursday.