Athens: Greece voted Sunday in a crucial general election that could bring the radical Syriza party to power and present the strongest challenge yet to austerity policies for struggling European Union nations.
In an election closely watched by the rest of the continent, Syriza -- which wants to renegotiate Greece`s 240-billion-euro ($269 billion) bailout deal -- leads the conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras by around four points, according to the latest polls.
Syriza`s 40-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras said that Europe must find an alternative to austerity as he voted amid a media scrum in Athens.
"Our common future in Europe is not the future of austerity, it is the future of democracy, solidarity and cooperation," Tsipras said.
He said Greek people would regain "dignity" under a Syriza government.
In exchange for the massive bailout by the EU and the International Monetary Fund in 2010, Greece was forced to accept stringent cuts in public sector spending and tax and pay cuts.
The possibility of a Syriza-led government reversing those measures has sparked fears that Greece could default on its debt and quit the group of 19 countries using the single European currency, although Syriza say it is not their aim to leave the eurozone.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said as he voted in his home town of Pylos in the Peloponnese region that Greeks would be taking a huge risk by turning to Syriza.
"Today we decide if are going forward or if we are going towards the unknown," Samaras said.
Some 9.8 million Greeks are eligible to vote in the country`s third general election in five years. Polling stations close at 1700 GMT, followed immediately by exit poll results.Voters admit that Syriza represent a leap into the unknown, but many believe it is a risk worth taking.
Elli, 20, a student casting her ballot in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni, said she would vote for Syriza but admitted she had concerns.
"I was undecided until this morning because I`m afraid that the outcome of a Syriza win could be a default," she told AFP.
Yannis Papacostas, a 50-year-old self-employed man, said he wanted the Greek people to "wake up" after six years of economic hardship.
"The worst scenario is that the parties will not cooperate," he said.
He said he was supporting To Potami (The River), a new pro-European party that could form part of a coalition government with Syriza.
Tsipras says he will confront the "troika" -- the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank -- to secure a reduction in Greece`s debts that total 318 billion euros.
He says Greece`s lenders have put the country in an "unsustainable" position, forced to make spiralling debt repayments while the economy shrinks.
The IMF has warned Greece that failure to repay its debts will carry "consequences".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen as the driving force in the EU`s austerity drive, said Friday she wanted Greece to stay in the eurozone "despite the difficulties".
Greece has seen a rapid economic decline since the eurozone crisis began, pushing unemployment above 25 percent.
Samaras argues it would be disastrous if voters bring Syriza to power just as the fiscal reforms he has supported since coming to power in 2012 could be about to bear fruit.
The election was triggered when the Greek parliament failed to elect the country`s new president in December.
Tsipras, who grew up in a middle-class Athens family and trained as a civil engineer, says Syriza wants to smash the "oligarchy" that has traditionally dominated Greek politics and the media.
A Syriza official told AFP Saturday the party was confident of victory and believed it would have little difficulty in forming a coalition government if it fails to gain the 151 seats required for an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament.
The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn can expect to at least retain the 18 seats they won two years ago, but are not likely coalition partners.
A victory for Syriza could pave the way for other anti-austerity parties to break through in Europe, such as Spain`s Podemos.