By Elena BecatorosATHENS, Greece -- Greeks head to the polls Sunday in their most critical -- and uncertain -- election in decades, with voters set to punish the two main parties that are being held responsible for the country's dire economic straits. Such is the disillusionment with the socialist PASOK party and conservative New Democracy, which have been alternating in power for the last 38 years, that neither is expected to garner enough votes to form a government. Days of wrangling over forming a coalition will likely ensue, with the prospect -- alarming to Greece's lenders and much of the country's population -- of another round of elections if they fail.
Venizelos warned that Greece faces default and mass poverty if voters back antibailout parties. "Sunday will decide whether we remain in Europe and the euro, and we stay on a course that is difficult but safe, after having covered most of the distance, to finally emerge from the crisis and (austerity)," he said during his final campaign rally in central Athens on Friday night. "Or it will (determine) whether we embark on an adventure, sliding back many decades and taking the country to default, to leave Greeks facing mass poverty." Repeated rounds of tax increases and reductions of salaries and pensions over the past two years have seen the country mired in a fifth year of recession and unemployment spiral to more than 21%. The backlash has seen voters turn to smaller groups and mostly antibailout offshoots created by disgruntled deputies who rebelled rather than vote in favor of the measures. "This whole situation has destroyed our dreams," said Haris Manolis, a worker at a steel factory where employees have been on strike for six months to protest layoffs and wage cuts. "We have no more dreams. We have one: to overturn them so that we can make new ones. That's it." Up to an unprecedented 10 parties have been projected to win more than the 3% minimum threshold for a parliamentary seat. That includes the extreme right Golden Dawn, which has been riding high on the emotive issue of illegal immigration, promising to clean up crime-ridden, ghetto-like city neighborhoods and mine the country's borders to stop more migrants getting in. "People are not choosing smaller parties because they believe in their agendas," political communications expert Spiros Rizopoulos said. "I doubt if anyone has ever read an agenda of a smaller party. It's because they want to protest a decision that has been made" that led Greece into the bailouts and the ensuing austerity. For the past six months, New Democracy and PASOK have been uneasy bedfellows in a coalition government cobbled together under technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. The former European Central Bank head was appointed after Papandreou was forced to resign following a sudden decision to put the country's second bailout to a referendum.
The coalition, which initially also included a small right-wing party, was formed with the sole mandate of securing the country's second bailout and a massive bond swap deal with private creditors that wiped more than 100 billion euros ($130 billion) off the country's national debt. With both secured in early April, elections were called. Samaras has insisted he will not enter into a coalition with his Socialist rivals. "It is not in the interest of the Greek people to have a power-sharing government of this kind to exist," he told supporters at his main campaign rally in Athens on Thursday night. But the tactic is seen as an effort to drum up the maximum support before Sunday's vote, and an attempt to force new elections by refusing to cooperate with other parties is likely to anger even members of his own party who have openly supported sharing power with the Socialists. "Whoever dares to torpedo the creation of a coalition government won't even receive his own vote in the next elections," Athens University political science professor Elias Nicolacopoulos said. "Whatever they may say now, however much they raise the rhetoric, in 10 days maximum they are obliged to agree on forming a government. Otherwise, they will be unable to walk on the street. ... Right now, people expect -- even if they vote for antiausterity parties -- responsible behavior on forming a government." ___ Nicholas Paphitis and Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed to this report.