New Democracy, Syriza Sit Atop Greek Exit Polls

By: CNN, Posted by Chelsey Moran
By: CNN, Posted by Chelsey Moran

Athens (CNN) -- Exit polls pointed to a neck-and-neck finish in Greece's parliamentary elections Sunday between a party pledged to continue with an unpopular bailout program and one vowing to tear it up.

Initial exit polls by a consortium of Greek television networks showed the center-right New Democracy party leading the left-wing Syriza coalition by a fraction of a percentage point. The results could decide the fate of the euro, a currency used by 325 million people across 17 countries in Europe.

Sunday's vote was called after Greece's leading parties failed to form a government after earlier elections in May. The projected results -- between 27.5 to 30.5% of the vote for New Democracy, just ahead of Syriza with an estimated 27 to 30% -- are well short of the showings either party would need to form a government outright, indicating another round of coalition talks will be necessary.

Polls closed at 7 p.m. (noon ET). The exit polls had a sampling error of 3 percentage points.

Greek's socialist Pasok party trailed far behind with a projected 10-12%, exit polls showed. The Independent Greeks and far-right Golden Dawn were running at 6-7.5%, and the Democratic Left and Communist Party trailed with less than 7% each.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras says he'll reject the conditions attached to massive international loans that are keeping Greece from defaulting on its debts. Support for his party soared on the back of Greek anger at government budget cuts imposed by international lenders, but re-opening the agreement would set up a confrontation with Europe that analysts say could lead to a run on Greek banks.

"Today we open the path towards a better tomorrow, with our people united, dignified and proud -- to a Greece where there's social justice and progress -- an equal member of a Europe that's changing," Tsipras said before polls closed Sunday.

Greece has been suffering under a heavy burden of painful austerity measures, high unemployment and a long-running recession. But New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras told supporters a "new era" would begin after Sunday's vote.

Samaras has said his party wants to remain in the eurozone and alter existing policies, including stringent austerity measures, to "achieve development and offer people relief." Tsipras also expressed a desire to keep Greece in the euro currency union while opposing the bailout terms.

The party that wins the most seats gets the first chance to form a government, and Syriza and New Democracy were effectively tied in the last official polls two weeks ago. Syriza has surged in popularity because voters see him as offering something new and different, Greek journalist Fanis Papathanasiou said Sunday.

"What Tsipras is pledging and promises is to fight the old corrupted political system. What they see in Tsipras is a hope," said the diplomatic correspondent for ERT television.

And Yiannis Alafouzos, managing director of Greek broadcaster Skai Media Group, said older Greeks are scared -- "But the younger generation, they're not scared, and they seem to have had enough of the recession they're trying to get out of it by rebelling, effectively."

"Unfortunately, the political system in Greece has not been honest with the voters," Alafouzos said. "And so a lot of people believe there is a way out of this without all the pain we have been suffering for the past two or three years."

But the possibility that Tspiras could emerge as prime minister has prompted waves of fear that Greece could crash out of the euro and Europe's ambitious experiment with a common currency could collapse. Some analysts have estimated that the collapse of the euro would cost $1 trillion, while others say talk of the break-up of the currency is alarmist and unlikely to happen.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful advocate of balancing budgets to build a strong basis for economic growth, urged Greeks not to walk away from international loan deals.

"We will stick to the agreements. That is the basis on which Europe will prosper," she said Saturday.

New Democracy party favors sticking to the terms already agreed to with Greece's lenders, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. They demanded public spending cuts to slash Greece's enormous deficit.

If a Syriza-led government follows through on its promise to toss the current agreement, markets fear that will lead to a "disorderly exit" from the eurozone. Yannos Papantoniou, who was the Greek finance minister at the time the country adopted the euro, said the vote amounts to a referendum on being in the common currency, abut he said the country needs more flexibility to deal with the austerity measures demanded by lenders.

He said the country needed to implement three changes to its plans to enable it to emerge from the crisis: An extension to the fiscal deficit demands; a commitment to stop lowering incomes and raise taxes; and a European "Marshall Plan" to promote investment and foster growth.

Since May's vote, Greece has been roiled by uncertainty and division.

Many voters were focused on Greece's Euro 2012 soccer match against Russia on Saturday night in Warsaw -- a welcome distraction from the political drama playing out at home, especially after Giorgos Karagounis's goal helped propel the Greek side into the high-profile tournament's quarterfinal round.

The Greek victory potentially sets them up to play Germany in a future round.

New Democracy and the Socialist Pasok party were punished by voters in the last election for supporting the bailout program, as well as for agreeing to the austerity measures that came with it.

Pasok party leader Evangelos Venizelos cast his ballot Sunday, calling for a government of shared responsibility.

"We must be united on the home front and have international credibility to be able, with Greece remaining in the Euro, to do what's best for all Greek citizens," he said.

Fotis Kouvelis, leader of the small Democratic Left party and a potential kingmaker if parliament is closely divided, called for progress after hie voted on Sunday, saying the country needed to escape "a situation that cuts us into small pieces and hurts society."

Greece must identify additional budget cuts by the end of June to be considered "compliant" with the terms of its bailout program.

The situation in Greece is likely to be on the minds of world leaders, as they meet in Mexico on Monday for the Group of 20 summit.

Some experts argue that a potential Greek exit would be manageable, assuming the European Central Bank and European Union policymakers respond aggressively.

But others worry that such an unprecedented event would cause chaos in financial markets and shock the global economy.

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