ATHENS • Greece's election hangs on a knife-edge 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.
A political calm before the storm enveloped the election-weary country yesterday with all campaigning and polling suspended ahead of today's vote, which is being watched closely from outside because the winner will need to oversee deep economic reforms required for an 86 billion euro ($98 billion) bailout brokered last month with Athens' euro zone partners.
Mr Tsipras' leftist Syriza party appeared to be slightly ahead of conservative New Democracy rival, Mr Vangelis Meimarakis, if a flurry of late polls on Friday are correct. But neither party looked set to garner the roughly 38 per cent of the vote generally seen as needed to get a majority in the 300-seat Parliament as a result of a 50-seat bonus awarded to the party with the most votes.
Mr Tsipras used a final pre-election speech on Friday to try to shore up support from former Syriza voters whom he fears may stay away from the polls, disillusioned by his being forced to backtrack on promises to end the austerity that has accompanied consecutive international bailouts.
"Not one vote should be lost, we should not be beaten by abstention," he said at a rally that lacked much of the passion seen when he stormed to power in January.
EVERY VOTE COUNTS
Not one vote should be lost, we should not be beaten by abstention.
MR ALEXIS TSIPRAS, former premier, appealing to Greek voters
Mr Meimarakis accused Mr Tsipras of "false promises" and called his term of office a "disaster" for Greece. "Our aim is that the European countries no longer have to give us loans because we finally want to end this crisis," he said in an interview with Germany's Bild newspaper published yesterday.
Friday's polls broadly showed that Syriza will get the most votes and, with the 50-seat bonus, it could forge a coalition with the centrist To Potami party and the socialist Pasok. Most parties - including Syriza and New Democracy - are committed to the bailout, albeit with different emphases on such things as labour reform.
Polls give the pro-bailout parties a combined support of 65 to 70 per cent of the vote.
But the implementation of the bailout may be at stake. The two main parties, for example, disagree on pivotal matters such as freeing up the labour market, collective bargaining and immigration. Frustrated voters may also swing to the two extremes of the political spectrum. The polls show Golden Dawn, a far-right party that sports an old Greek symbol closely resembling a swastika as its emblem, coming third, albeit a distant third. The KKE, Greece's hard-core communists, might make it to fourth.
Many Greeks, meanwhile, appear weary of politics. Today's vote is the third national ballot this year after January's election and July's referendum on whether to accept a bailout.
On the Greek island of Kos, a travel agent told a Reuters reporter that people were "bored, complacent" and that no politicians had come to campaign this time. "I think they are scared to come," a bike shop renter said. "People are angry, there is nothing they can tell us anymore."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS