ATHENS • Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' ruling leftist Syriza party was expected to be ousted by the conservative opposition in Greece's first general election since the country emerged from international bailouts.
Polls predicted the conservatives to return to power after voting closed at midnight yesterday, ending four years of leftist rule blamed for saddling Greece with more debt.
Opinion polls put New Democracy's lead at around 10 percentage points ahead of Syriza, potentially giving it an absolute majority in Greece's 300-seat Parliament.
"This is a critical battle," said Mr Tsipras, a radical leftist who stormed to power in 2015 vowing to tear up the austerity rule book, only to relent later.
"We are fighting it with optimism and determination ... so that the sacrifices and hard work of our people do not go to waste," he said after casting his vote in Athens on a hot summer morning.
The snap election was called after Syriza suffered defeat in European elections in May, and is largely a showdown between two contenders -Mr Tsipras and Mr Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy, the scion of a political dynasty who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father as prime minister.
As Mr Mitsotakis arrived at the polling station, a crowd of supporters erupted in cheers of "Here comes the prime minister!" while a small group of radical leftist demonstrators tried to block the entrance.
"Today, Greeks take their future in their own hands and I am certain that a better day for our country will dawn tomorrow," Mr Mitsotakis said.
Greece endured a debilitating financial crisis from 2010 that required three cash lifelines from its European Union partners. The economy is the public's main concern, said Mr Thomas Gerakis of pollsters MARC.
One voter, a 45-year-old private sector worker who gave his name as Makis, said: "I think in the long run (New Democracy) will be better in terms of management and growth."
Others said they forgave Mr Tsipras for any errors.
"I am completely satisfied, whatever the mistakes, whatever the omissions. He got us out of the bailouts," said Ms Niki Loufa, 61, a retired bank worker.
Mr Tsipras said that a vote cast for Mr Mitsotakis would go to the political establishment, which forced Greece to the edge of the precipice in the first place.
But he has also been roundly criticised for mismanagement of crises under his watch.
They include an incident last year when 100 people were killed in a devastating fire that swept through a seaside village east of Athens. While Mr Mitsotakis was quick to the scene to console survivors, Mr Tsipras was out of the public eye for several days.
Athens wrapped up its last economic adjustment programme last year, but remains under surveillance from lenders to ensure no future fiscal slippage. While economic growth has returned, Greece's unemployment of 18 per cent is the euro zone's highest.
New Democracy has promised to invest in creating well-paid jobs with decent benefits.
The Tsipras government meanwhile hopes voters will reward it for raising the minimum wage by 11 per cent and reinstating collective bargaining.