Greeks voted for the second time in six weeks in an election that may determine the fate of the euro currency as global leaders gather for their annual summit.
Exit polls will be released when voting ends at 7 p.m. in Athens, with a first official estimate due around 9:30 p.m. The final polls, published on June 1, showed no party set to win a majority. The election marks a revote after the May 6 ballot failed to yield a government.
With 21 parties on the ballot, the main contest pits Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, who has promised to renege on budget cuts demanded by creditors in exchange for a pair of bailouts, against New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras, who says his challenger is risking an exit from the currency union.
“Today, the Greek people speak,” Samaras said as he cast his vote this morning. “Tomorrow, a new era begins for Greece.”
The vote will turn on whether Greeks, in a fifth year of recession, accept open-ended austerity to stay in the euro or reject the bailout conditions and risk the turmoil of exiting the 17-nation currency. Group of 20 leaders begin their annual gathering in Los Cabos, Mexico, tomorrow, with France’s Francois Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel opting not to leave for the event until after the outcome in Greece is known.
European finance ministers plan a conference call to discuss the outcome, with a statement likely to be issued around 10 p.m. Brussels time, a European official said under condition of anonymity.
Fires and Grenades
The vote was held against a backdrop of a spate of forest fires around the country that forced emergency services to request help from European Union countries. Five firemen were injured battling blazes yesterday.
Police today said they recovered two unexploded grenades near the premises of a closely held television station, with government spokesman Dimitris Tsiodras saying the incident was a failed attempt to disrupt the election.
Samaras has said the vote today was a choice between the euro or drachma. Tsipras, who has said he’ll try to keep Greece in the euro while tearing up the bailout agreements, has urged voters to reject the two main parties that backed the international rescue, New Democracy and Pasok.
“We have conquered fear,” Tsipras said after casting his vote. “Today we open the path to hope with our people united, dignified and proud: with a Greece of social justice, an equal member of a Europe that is changing.”
Tsipras and Samaras ran even in the final opinion polls. The socialist Pasok party, which won the 2009 election and led the country into the bailout, was third at about 13 percent.
Now in its third year, the European debt crisis has rounded back to Greece, which sparked the turmoil in October 2009 when Pasok Prime Minister George Papandreou revealed a deficit four times more than European rules allowed. Greece has since gotten two rescue packages totaling 240 billion euros ($303 billion) from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
The ballot will also mark the first test for a 100 billion-euro firewall for Spain, which on June 9 became the fourth euro country after Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek a rescue.
Central banks intensified warnings that Europe’s failure to tame its debt crisis threatens to roil the world’s financial markets and economy as Greece’s election looms as the next flashpoint for investors.
The Greek turmoil has cast a pall around the world, with Bank of England Governor Mervyn King calling the euro debt crisis a “black cloud” over the global economy.
The euro, created in 1999 and adopted by Greece in 2001, has lost 3.3 percent since May 6, when Syriza’s second-place finish increased the prospect of a Greek exit from the currency union. New Democracy won 18.9 percent in the May 6 election and Syriza got 16.8 percent.
Tsipras has pledged to scrap state-asset sales, civil-service job cuts and wage and pension reductions. Samaras says Tsipras’s policies risk forcing Greece out of the euro and causing hyperinflation, bank runs and widespread poverty.
Standard & Poor’s said in a June 4 report that the chance of Greece leaving the euro in coming months was one-in-three. Citigroup Inc. said it maintained its 50 percent to 75 percent probability of a Greek exit over the next 18 months.
“The durability of any new Greek government will be limited due to implementation changes, continuing public opposition to austerity and vested interest opposition to structural reforms and privatization,” Tina Fordham, senior global political analyst at Citigroup Inc. in London, said in a June 15 note.
New Democracy led Syriza by 22.7 percent to 22 percent, according to an ANT1 TV poll on June 1, the last date surveys were made public in accordance with Greek election law. Under that scenario neither party would have enough support to rule outright.
Samaras said in his final campaign speech on June 15 that the country couldn’t survive a third round of elections and that he’d work to form a government to save the country with partners on two conditions: that Greece remain in the euro and that a new administration would renegotiate the terms of the bailout accords.
The spending reductions demanded by the troika of creditors from the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF to bring the country back to financial health have included cuts to pensions and the minimum wage amid tax increases, sending unemployment to a record of more than 22 percent.
Worried Greeks have stepped up the pace of withdrawing their savings before the elections on concern the nation may move closer to abandoning the euro, bankers familiar with the situation said on June 13.
Deposit outflows jumped in the days following the May 6 election and were as much as 6 billion euros in May, Athens-based Kathimerini newspaper reported June 9, without saying where it got the information. Greek bank deposits by businesses and households rose to 166 billion euros in April from 165.4 billion euros the previous month, according to a statement by the Bank of Greece on its website on May 31.
The outflow is increasing the strain on a banking system that has suffered since the beginning of the crisis. An exit from the euro would cut lenders off from access to ECB funding.
Papandreou, speaking today in an interview with the BBC, said the situation is “stable if we stay in the euro,” and warned of a “catastrophic” outcome if the nation were to abandon the single currency.