Athens - From the sprawling voting districts of greater Athens to tiny far-flung islands, Greeks turned out on Sunday to vote in elections that once again are being seen as a referendum on the country's membership in the euro.
The last official polls, by law published two weeks ago, had the leftist party Syriza, whose 37-year-old leader, Alexis Tsipras, has called for a rejection of Greece's loan deal with its foreign creditors, in a tight race with conservative New Democracy, which calls for a renegotiation of the deal and is led by Antonis Samaras.
As world financial institutions braced for more political uncertainty and potential market turmoil on Monday, Greek political leaders said they understood the need to form a government quickly, no matter what the election results. Elections on May 6 failed to yield a government and brought the Greek economy to a standstill.
As they headed to the polls, Greeks were gripped by anxiety about the collapse of the economy and with it the middle class — and shaken by repeated warnings from European leaders that Greece's exit from the single currency was likely. For many, the election was seen as a choice between hope and fear.
"There's the party of fear and the party of despair," Nikos Xydakis, a political analyst and an editor at Kathimerini daily, said. "The despairing ones vote for Syriza and they hope maybe they can change something. The people of the middle class that still have something to lose, some deposits or their houses or they still have a job, they are afraid and maybe they will got to New Democracy."
"The problem," Mr. Xydakis said, is that New Democracy "is very corrupt and very weak. They don't have the moral and the political gravitas" to lead.
"Nobody wants to step out from the euro zone because they know there will be more pain and more suffering in this transition period," Mr. Xydakis said. "But also people cannot afford austerity, it has ruined the economy."
Syriza has billed itself as a kind of "Greek spring," capturing the growing momentum of those hungry for change at almost any cost from a political system widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. It also has support from voters who feel betrayed by the Socialist Pasok party in power in 2010 when Greece signed the first of its two loan deals with foreign creditors.
They, in turn, fear that a leftist party like Syriza with no experience in government would push Greece closer to exit from the euro because it would frighten Germany enough that the European Central Bank would not be as willing to extend Greece the loans it needs to stay afloat.
On Friday, the German edition of The Financial Times published an editorial in both Greek and German urging Greeks to vote "for Samaras, not the demagogue," referring to Mr. Tsipras. The message angered many Greeks, who dislike it when foreigners, albeit ones whose loans are their lifeline, lecture them. Tensions between Greece and Germany are poised to reach a boiling point on Friday, when the two countries national teams are set to face off in a Euro 2012 soccer match.
For its part, center-right New Democracy has been tapping into fear — fear of the unknown, fear of illegal immigration, fear that a Syriza victory could fast-track Greece's exit from the euro. Its main campaign advertisement shows an elementary schoolteacher telling his pupils which countries are in the euro. When one asks, "and what about Greece?" the teacher stares back in stony silence. "Why, teacher, why?" the student asks.
New Democracy placed first in the elections on May 6, but failed to form a government with its former rivals, the Socialists. This time around, the parties do not have the luxury of squabbling over their differences and must form a coalition, however short lived, because without securing foreign financing, Greece is expected to run out of money to meet expenses as soon as July.
Although Syriza has frightened European leaders with its rhetoric of wanting to "tear up" the loan agreement and its proposals for more government control of banks, all the leading political parties are calling for some form of renegotiation of the bailout terms, in particular to extend the date by which Greece is expected to reduce its budget deficit.
Mr. Samaras has said that if elections are once again inconclusive, Greeks should not return for a third round of voting, and he has instead called for a government of national unity based on the renegotiation of the memorandum and keeping Greece in the euro zone.
The ability to form a coalition depends in part on securing the support of some smaller parties. In an interview last week, Fotis Kouvelis the leader of the Democratic Left party, a leftist party that refused to join various potential coalitions after the May 6 elections, said that he had met with European leaders in Brussels and came back convinced that after elections, "We need to have a government," he said.
In the May 6 elections, many Greeks said they voted in anger, to punish the traditional parties that had brought the country to the brink. On Sunday, some said they were voting out of fear. "Last time I voted it was a spasm, I was mad at the whole lot of them," said Antonis Masouridis, a 65-year-old pensioner, who said he had voted for New Democracy on Sunday after backing a "small right-wing group" in the May 6 polls.
"This time, it's different, there has to be a government," he said, adding that he was terrified of leftist Syriza coming to power. "I don't sleep easy when I hear the leftists saying they're going to take our money," he said, referring to proposals by the leftist party to tax wealthier Greeks. "And they have no idea about how to deal with Europe. It's suicide to put our fate in their hands."
With unemployment at 22 percent and per capita income shrinking rapidly, the economic collapse has also exacerbated longstanding divisions between right and left that were papered over during four decades of alternating rule by the Socialists and center-right New Democracy, both seen as patronage networks as much as ideologies.
The May 6 elections saw the election to parliament of the anti-immigrant neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn party, which routinely scuffles violently with immigrants and is popular among Greeks who feel that an influx of illegal immigrants has made downtown Athens crime-ridden and dangerous.
In response, Mr. Samaras has tacked hard to the right. "Let us remove migrants from squares. The mass invasion of immigrants will stop and the mass return to their homelands will begin," he said at his final campaign rally on Friday night, as party stalwarts waved Greek flags and the theme song to "Pirates of the Caribbean" blared on the loudspeakers.
At its rallies, Syriza plays Patti Smith's anthem, "People have the Power."
As he stood outside a polling station in downtown Athens on Sunday, Spyridon Tsichlis, a 53-year-old taxi driver, who said he used to vote for Socialist Pasok but had abstained from the polls last month, said he had voted for the Syriza out of anger at the old guard and the wish for something new . "At least with Tsipras there's some hope that something will change," he said. "What have we go to lose?"
Mr. Tsichlis said he was not worried that Syriza's rejection of Greece's bailout could endanger the country's position in the euro zone. "That's rubbish, all this talk about returning to the drachma. They just say that to make sure we support them again," he said, referring to the two main parties."
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting