Greeks have begun casting their ballots in an election called by the embattled prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, three months ahead of schedule.
Describing the election as “a day of democracy”, Tsipras urged the nation’s almost 10-million strong electorate not to waste the opportunity, appealing to young Greeks in particular to get to polling stations.
“Greeks are deciding on the course the country will take over the next four years,” he announced after casting his own ballot in central Athens. “I want to appeal to all citizens to exercise their right to vote, despite the fact that the temperature is high today it’s worth the 20-minute effort to be part of this critical decision for the future of our country.”
Of the 9,903,864 Greeks eligible to vote, 519,227 are first-time voters aged between 17 and 21.
The leftist leader called the ballot after his Syriza party suffered a staggering defeat in European parliament elections in May. New Democracy, the main opposition party, emerged triumphant with a 9.5 percentage point lead – a margin of victory not seen since European elections were first contested in Greece in 1981.
Opinion polls indicate the party, which is headed by the liberal former banker Kyriakos Mitsotakis, will repeat that performance on Sunday although analysts are not excluding the possibility that Syriza supporters will rally.
The election is being billed as transformational: whichever party wins will form the first post-bailout government after almost a decade of unprecedented recession for the country long on the frontline of Europe’s debt crisis. Kept afloat by international rescue funds since 2010, the thrice-bailed-out nation has been forced to endure punishing austerity in return for remaining in the eurozone.
“I’ve voted early because I want to throw them out,” said Giorgos Mananas, a shopowner in central Athens, referring to the leftists. “Tsipras ended up being like all the rest. He criticised everyone but didn’t look at himself. His economic policies were horrible. Taxes, taxes, taxes. We gave them a chance but after four-and-a-half years they have to go.”
Casting his vote in the working class district of Peristeri, the 51-year-old Mitsotakis expressed optimism. “Today all Greeks take the fortunes of the country in their hands and I am sure that tomorrow a better day will dawn for all,” he said smiling broadly.
New Democracy’s unexpectedly good performance has been linked both to Mitsotakis’s efforts to entice centrists and the conservatives’ ability to siphon off votes from the neo-fascist Golden Dawn by taking a tough stance on immigration and the accord struck by Tsipras settling the long-running name row over Macedonia, Greece’s neighbour to the north.
But the elections take place against a backdrop of anxiety that abstention will emerge as the real winner. The poll is the first to take place at the height of summer since 1928. There are fears voters will prefer to go to the beach or remain at home rather than traipsing to polling stations in temperatures expected to reach 40C.
Turnout will play a crucial role in an outcome that is expected to become clear by 7pm GMT.
Twenty parties are contesting the race for seats in the 300-member parliament. The fate of smaller political groupings, which have to cross a 3% threshold to win representation in the house, will depend on the number of people who turn out to vote. Pollsters say that, in turn, could affect New Democracy’s ability to win an outright majority and form an autonomous government.
Speaking on TV shows on Sunday morning, analysts mused that the vote could be swung by hundreds of thousands of younger Greeks “deciding to go to the beach or polling stations’.
Smaller parties such as the ultra-nationalist Greek Solution and leftist MeRA25, headed by Yanis Varoufakis, the flamboyant former finance minister, have younger Greeks as their target groups.
“Voting once every four years is not enough for democracy,” Varoufakis told reporters as he emerged from a polling station in a coastal area of southern Athens.
“Democracy belongs only to those who have the courage to defend it. Today, the only way to defend it is by voting on the basis of parties’ programmes and records, Congratulations to all those citizens who get off their sofas and vote.”