By George Georgiopoulos and Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS (Reuters) - A ban on campaigning took effect in Greece on Saturday 24 hours ahead of the most uncertain and critical election for decades, a vote that could throw the country's future in Europe into doubt and shake the common currency.
Pollsters say the result of Sunday's poll is impossible to predict, aggravating fears of political chaos that could revive a euro zone debt crisis that Greece first unleashed in 2009.
Local media underlined the importance of the vote as a ban in campaigning came into effect a day before the polls opened.
"With the tough dilemma of staying in the euro or bankruptcy, voters head to the polls in the most crucial election showdown in recent decades," said the centre-left Ta Nea newspaper.
Proto Thema weekly said the vote was the most critical since the fall of a military dictatorship in 1974 while centre-left daily Ethnos said: "What we are being called to do is determine with our vote whether the country will have a future or not."
Greeks are enraged by one of Europe's worst recessions since World War Two and are expected to abandon the two formerly dominant major parties in droves, turning instead to a raft of fringe groups opposed to a hugely unpopular 130 billion euro international bailout that is keeping Greece afloat - but which comes with painful strings attached.
The last polls before a blackout two weeks ago suggested the conservative New Democracy and Socialist PASOK parties, who support the bailout, will come first and second in the poll.
But their support has been ravaged by anger over a crisis that has slashed wages and benefits, pushed unemployment to one of the highest levels in Europe and provoked a rash of suicides by despairing businessmen and pensioners.
If the two parties fail to win a big enough majority to go into a coalition, they will have to woo groups opposed to the bailout, raising fears that Greece will renege on its promises to international lenders and head down a path towards bankruptcy and an exit from the euro, with dire contagion risks for other crisis hit EU states like Spain and Italy.
A record 8-10 parties could enter parliament and four small groups are vying to become kingmakers after the poll.
Antonis Pavlakis, a 40-year-old bank employee said he wouldn't vote for either New Democracy or PASOK.
"Why should I? My salary has been cut, my taxes have gone up and I'm not sure I will still have a job," he said, adding that his pay had been slashed by 15 percent.
PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos appealed to voters to support the bailout to avoid economic disaster. "Greeks are holding in their hands the fate of the country, the fate of the next generation, not just the next four years but the next 20 years," he said in an interview with Ta Nea.
Venizelos negotiated the bailout as finance minister and has managed to claw back some of the support lost by discredited former prime minister George Papandreou. But PASOK's support is expected to drop to 19 percent or less from the 44 percent it took in a landslide victory at the last election in 2009.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras is expected to win about 25 percent of the vote but insists he wants to rule alone. Analysts say that if he comes close to the numbers he needs he may be tempted to push for another snap election.
His last public statement before the vote, in an article in Ta Nea, was typically uncompromising, sniping at PASOK's economic record and showing little inclination to rule jointly with them.
Despite pressure across Europe to temper a drive for austerity - that has worsened recession - with measures to boost growth, EU paymaster Germany warned Greeks they could be forced out of the euro if they did not meet the terms of the bailout.
"If Greek voters were to vote for a majority that does not honor those agreements, then Greece will have to bear the consequences," said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
His remarks reflected wide concern in Europe about the consequences of the Greek vote but were likely to stoke the rage of Greeks who have burned German flags and carried effigies of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform because of Berlin's tough insistence on austerity.
The troika of IMF, European Union and European Central bank lenders funding Greece's bailout fear the election could put at risk the fiscal cuts and reforms it must deliver in exchange for the money it needs to stay solvent, including 11.7 billion euros of new savings due in June.
If Venizelos and Samaras fail to win a big enough majority to form a stable government, they are likely to turn first to the Democratic Left party of Fotis Kouvelis, most moderate of the four parties vying for third place.
If he refuses, they would have to woo even smaller groupings in what could be a long-drawn and uncertain period of negotiation after the vote.
(Writing By Barry Moody, editing by Mike Peacock)