ATHENS (AFP) - Greece's election hung on a knife-edge on Saturday (Sept 19) as radical former premier Alexis Tsipras retook a slight lead in the final hours of a tight race against the conservatives for the helm of government.
As thousands of mostly young supporters turned out on a hot Athens night for the last campaign rally of his Syriza party, polls gave the boyish charismatic leader a slim lead over the conservative New Democracy party led by Vangelis Meimarakis.
Hours before a midnight ban on voter surveys, four polls forecast victory for Tsipras over Meimarakis by margins ranging from 0.7 to 3.0 percentage points.
A Sept 20 victory for Syriza would deliver "a key message for Europe", Tsipras said referring to the refugee crisis and to EU economic woes.
"Do we want a Europe of austerity or one of solidarity and democracy?" he said.
His supporters gathered on Syntagma Square, long the backdrop to protests over Greece's mounting debt crisis and the anti-austerity remedies forced on Athens by its international creditors.
At Tsipras's side were some of Europe's new radical leaders, including Pablo Iglesias, who heads Spain's Podemos party and who called Tsipras "a lion" and his rival Meimarakis "a rabbit."
Wearing a white shirt and with his sleeves rolled up, Tsipras said victory on Sunday would show "if the old system that governed for 40 years is going to return or if we are going to take a step forward".
"The people will say no to this old system of corruption, no to the enshrining of the oligarch establishment," he added.
Tsipras won office in January on an anti-austerity ticket but then upset supporters in July with a U-turn cash-for-reforms deal struck with Greece's international creditors despite a huge "no" vote in a referendum on the issue.
But even after the broken promises, many voters believe he acts honestly and with their interests at heart - a break with past leaders they perceived as corrupt and linked to powerful interests.
As polls showed Syriza regaining a slight lead over the conservatives, Greek pollsters called for caution after being burnt previously this year.
"It's the first time I've felt unable at this point to make a forecast," political columnist Paschos Mandravelis told AFP.
Polling institutes are working "in shifting sands, after seven months of major political upheaval", said Thomas Gerakis at the Marc Institute.
In January, Syriza won office with 36.3 per cent of the vote, but Tsipras resigned in August, leading to this weekend's election, with anti-euro hardliners quitting to form a new party, stripping Syriza of a fifth of its MPs.
On Friday, his flamboyant one-time finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said he would vote for the rebels in Sunday's election.
The vote is the third this year for Greeks, and the fifth in six years as Tsipras seeks a fresh mandate to push through the tough reforms he pledged under a new 86-billion-euro (S$136.5 billion) international rescue in July.
In a flurry of interviews, he has defended his decision to put the country above his party, saying that had he refused to agree to the three-year bailout, Greece would likely have been ejected from the euro zone.
On Friday, he told Antenna TV that he would "tug the rope" in order to secure relief on Greece's huge national debt from EU creditors in the coming months.
Meimarakis, meanwhile, staged his last campaign rally on Thursday, urging Tsipras to form a coalition government, an offer already rebuffed by the Syriza leader.
The bushy eye-browed 61-year-old, a former lawyer, has narrowed the gap with Syriza since he took the helm of New Democracy a couple of months ago.
"I voted for Syriza in January, but this time I'm going to vote New Democracy," said a pensioner at the Meimarakis rally who gave his name only as Costa.
The vote is expected to deliver a hung parliament, though, and with both Syriza and New Democracy having pledged to stick to the cash-for-reforms package, there will likely be more unpopular austerity on the way whoever ends up in charge.