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Austerity-weary Greeks go to the polls in crucial election

May 6, 2012 |  3:34 am

Greece election
ATHENS -- Greeks began voting Sunday in the most important -- and dicey -- election race in decades, one that could help decide their future in the European Union and also the fate of the euro.

Opinion polls suggest that neither of the country’s two main parties have enough support to win an outright majority, setting the stage for a deadlocked parliament and heightened unease over whether Greece can stick to the tough conditions of the two international bailouts it has received.

It's the first national election here since Athens agreed to punishing levels of austerity in exchange for those rescue packages. The economy is now deep in recession, and the social fabric is fraying as living standards drop.

Most voters appear keen to put the boot to the two big parties they hold responsible for the country’s financial meltdown.

Surveys published before a two-week blackout ahead of the election showed Antonis Samaras and his conservative New Democracy party beating their opponents but not by enough to take power outright in parliament. The same polls suggested support for Evangelos Venizelos, the pugnacious former finance minister and newly elected head of the socialist PASOK party, plunging to as low as 12%, down 32 percentage points from the party’s landslide victory result in 2009.

"We're looking at the end of a political era in which the conservative and socialists dominated the political spectrum," said Dimitris Mavros, managing director of the MRB polling group. "Voter intent is clear: to demolish that system and produce a new, highly fragmented political kaleidoscope."

A messy electoral result could take weeks to untangle at a time when Europe's debt crisis threatens to flare up again.

Locked out of international markets, Greece has relied almost exclusively on foreign credit since its European peers and the International Monetary Fund cast Athens its first lifeline of about $150 billion in May 2010. A deepening recession and the need for a second $170-billion bailout, plus a massive debt-restructuring deal, forced the Socialists and New Democracy into a fractious coalition last November, led by an appointed prime minister.

But the price has been steep. Greece has become one of the fastest-shrinking economies in the EU. The unemployment rate has soared to more than 21% -- comparable to the United States at the height of its Great Depression -- and public services, including healthcare, have collapsed.

A booming backlash, political analysts say, could push some voters to smaller fringe parties. As many as 10 of the 32 parties competing in Sunday’s race may win seats in parliament, pollsters say. Nearly all of them reject the harsh reforms prescribed by Greece’s international creditors.

Faced with fresh fears that Greece might have to exit the Eurozone, Samaras and Venizelos may have no other option than to form another coalition or push Greeks to another trip to the ballot box by as early as June, party strategists say.

"If markets and Greece's creditors wake up on Monday to a scene of political turmoil in Greece, then it could get spooky," said Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "Athens will have to show that it wants to make the effort to stay in the Eurozone.

"If it doesn't," he said in a telephone interview, "then that could spark contagion."

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Italy's Mario Monti speaks softly and carries a big question mark

-- Anthee Carassava

Photo: A mother and child reflected on an election poster at a bus stop in Athens on Saturday. Greeks began voting Sunday in a crucial election amid Europe's ongoing debt crisis. Credit: Kostas Tsironis / Associated Press

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