thens: Greece`s maverick leader Alexis Tsipras fights Sunday for a second chance to govern the struggling eurozone nation in a tense race with rival conservatives that is proving too tight to call.
Polls open at 0400 GMT in the cliffhanger vote pitting his radical left Syriza party against the conservative New Democracy bloc headed by tough-talking ex-lawyer and defence minister Vangelis Meimarakis, who has wiped out the gap between right and left during the election campaign.
Tsipras, a charismatic former student leader, was elected in January with 36.34 percent of the vote, becoming Greece`s youngest prime minister in 150 years and a beacon for anti-austerity campaigners across the European Union.
As he wound up his campaign with his sleeves rolled up Friday, he said victory for Syriza would strike a blow for Europe`s left.
"Do we want a Europe of austerity or one of solidarity and democracy?" the 41-year-old said. "The result will be a key message for Europe."
Tsipras took office as irate Greeks ran out of patience with the dire belt-tightening reforms imposed by the debt-hit country`s international creditors. At the time New Democracy trailed well behind, winning 27.81 percent of the vote.
But the latest statistics now show Tsipras leading Meimarakis by only a narrow margin, with polls showing the Syriza leader`s advantage ranges from 0.7 to 3.0 percent.
It was his own cash-for-reforms deal with Greece`s international lenders in July, signed days after Greeks overwhelmingly voted "No" to more austerity in a national referendum, that upset supporters.
A fifth of Syriza`s MPs quit the party and set up a new one -- Popular Unity -- saying the deal to introduce more tax hikes and pension reforms in return for a massive international rescue was an unacceptable U-turn."He had no option, he did it because he had to, for the country," said retired former teacher Elias Pappas. "If we`d had to leave the eurozone instead, the consequences would`ve been far worse."
Helene, a waitress, added: "We need to give him a second chance."
"He`s only had seven months in office," she said.
Tsipras was forced to call a new election to ensure a strong enough majority to implement the reforms. But in a slap in the face this week, his flamboyant former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said he would vote for the breakaway hardliners rather than Tsipras.
Under the deal pledging an 86-billion-euro ($97-billion) rescue for Greece, its third in five years, there will be more unpopular austerity on the way whoever winds up winning Sunday`s vote.
Whether it will be more palatable under Tsipras or Meimarakis remains to be seen, warned Manolis Alexakis, political sociologist at the University of Crete.
"Is there any difference between left implementation of a severe economic programme and a right-wing implementation or not?" he told AFP. "They did not talk about it so we don`t know, we really don`t know."
"People seem tired," he added. "The message is, please finish whatever should be done."
Even after Tsipras`s broken promises, many voters believe he has their interests at heart and represents a break with past leaders perceived as corrupt.
But Meimarakis has cautioned voters against giving a second chance to a politician who publicly admitted he opposed the bailout he signed.
"Do you know of any other prime minister who brokered a deal, brought it to parliament, voted for it and signed it, whilst saying he does not believe in it?" Meimarakis told the To Vima weekly.
"I fear that if Syriza is elected... the country will soon be led to elections again," said the bushy eye-browed 61-year-old who took the helm of New Democracy a couple of months ago.
But with nine parties hoping to enter parliament, no group is likely to secure an outright majority and Tsipras`s Syriza party could well need an ally from among those he despises.