ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greeks were voting Sunday in their third national polls this year, called on to choose who they trust to steer the country into its new international bailout.
Former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party, which made pledges to implement austerity measures in return for billions of euros in rescue loans, was marginally ahead of the rival center-right New Democracy in opinion polls leading up to the vote.
But the polls, which showed many of the 9.9 million voters were undecided until two days before the vote or might abstain altogether, indicated the winner would not have enough votes to form a government alone.
Tsipras, 41, triggered the election by resigning barely seven months into his four-year term, after facing a rebellion within Syriza over his policy U-turn in accepting the spending cuts and tax hikes stipulated by the bailout. Tsipras had won January elections on pledges of abolishing such measures, tied to Greece's first two bailouts.
He has argued he had no choice but to accept the demands of European creditors for more tax hikes and spending cuts in return for Greece's third rescue, a three-year package worth 86 billion euros ($97 billion). He had vowed to repeal the measures imposed in return for the country's first two bailouts — and despite winning a referendum he hastily called July 5 urging Greeks to reject creditor reform proposals.
But without the third bailout, Greece — which has relied on international rescue loans since 2010 — faced bankruptcy and a potentially disastrous exit from Europe's joint currency.
The campaign has been lackluster and somewhat muted — a far cry from the frenetic, high-stakes January campaign, which pitted the anti-bailout Tsipras against centrist parties that argued the deal with other Eurozone countries was the country's best chance for an eventual return to some form of economic normalcy in a country ravaged by recession and with unemployment at around 25 percent.
Now, the policies for whichever party wins have already been set in the form of the bailout agreement.
The campaign of Tsipras' main rival, New Democracy's 61-year-old Vangelis Meimarakis, has centered on a return to stability. He painted Tsipras as a reckless, inexperienced politician who led the country toward a potential catastrophe and introduced strict banking restrictions in an effort to stem a bank run.
Syriza's campaign has focused on doing away with the staid and often corrupt politics of the past.
The government that emerges will have little time to waste. Creditors are expected to review progress of reforms as part of the bailout next month, while the government will also have to draft the 2016 state budget, overhaul the pension system, raise a series of taxes, including on farmers, carry out privatizations and merge social security funds.
It must also oversee a critical bank recapitalization program, without which depositors with over 100,000 euros ($113,000) in their accounts will be forced to contribute.
Polls have indicated no party is anywhere near the levels needed for an overall parliamentary majority of 151 seats in the 300-member legislature, even with the 50-seat bonus given to the winner, and a three-party coalition would likely be required. That should be achievable with help from two centrist pro-European small parties: the formerly mighty socialist PASOK, and relative newcomer To Potami, or The River.
The Nazi-inspired extreme-right Golden Dawn party has been consistently polling in third place, but would not be approached by any of the other parties to form a coalition.
A total of nine parties have a chance of reaching the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.
Polls close at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) and final results are expected by early Monday.