Parties committed to Greece's multi-billion-euro bailout are on course to secure a slim parliamentary majority in an election result that could keep the debt-laden country in the euro zone, according to an official vote projection.
The projection, released by the interior ministry after polls closed on Sunday, showed conservative New Democracy taking 29.5 percent, with the radical leftist SYRIZA bloc just behind on 27.1. The PASOK Socialists were seen on 12.3 percent of the vote.
Because of a 50-seat bonus given to the party which comes in first, that result would give New Democracy and PASOK 161 seats in the 300-seat parliament, in an alliance committed to a 130 billion euro ($164 billion) EU/IMF bailout keeping the country from bankruptcy.
SYRIZA, led by a 37-year-old former communist, has vowed to tear up the punishing terms of the deal, potentially sending the country crashing out of Europe's single currency and rocking the euro to its core.
The projection was based on votes counted on the spot at about 12 percent of polling stations and sent to the ministry via text message. It proved highly accurate in an earlier May 6 election, which produced stalemate, though the figures are subject to a margin of error which leaves a degree of uncertainty.
"If we were in the United States, we would say it's too close to call and decline to publish a forecast," said Costas Panagopoulos of pollster Alco.
Greece's lenders say a new government must accept the conditions of the bailout - on top of a 110 billion euro package in 2010 - or funds will be cut off, driving Athens into bankruptcy.
A Greek euro exit has the potential to unleash shocks that could even break up Europe's single currency and plunge the global economy into chaos.
World leaders gathering at a G20 summit starting in Mexico on Monday will be watching with alarm.
Central banks from major economies stand ready to take steps, including coordinated action, to stabilize markets if the election triggers a financial storm or public panic, G20 sources told Reuters last week.
Earlier exit polls produced a similar result to the government projection, giving New Democracy and PASOK 159 seats combined.
With 15 percent of ballots counted, the country's interior ministry said New Democracy had taken 31.1 percent, ahead of SYRIZA on 25.4 percent. An official projection was expected at 9.30 p.m. (1830 GMT).
Most smaller parties have indicated they want a government no matter what, saying the country cannot withstand another election.
All the main parties say they will keep Greece in the single currency, but SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras believes he can renegotiate the deal. He is betting that European leaders cannot afford the financial market turmoil that could be unleashed by cutting a member of the euro zone loose.
Tsipras, a 37-year old former communist student radical, has shot from obscurity to global celebrity in a matter of weeks.
On the right, establishment heir and New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras says rejection of the bailout would mean a return to the drachma and even greater calamity, although he too wants to ease some aspects of the package.
Many believe Greece cannot hope to deliver an austerity program designed to radically cut debt given it will drive it ever deeper into recession. But its euro zone peers are prepared only to tinker with the deal and then only with a government firmly committed to the bailout.
"There can't be substantial changes to the agreements but I can imagine that we would talk about the time axes once again, given that in reality there was political standstill in Greece because of the elections, which the normal citizens shouldn't have to suffer from," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on German TV station ARD.
"But there is no way out of the reforms. Greece must stick to what has been agreed," he said.
Samaras has called for an extra two years to make the cuts demanded of his country.
Opinion polls show Greeks, weary and disillusioned after five years of deep recession, overwhelmingly favor remaining in the euro, but there is bitter anger over repeated rounds of tax hikes, slashed spending and sharp cuts in wages and pensions.
The election result exposed a deeply divided society.
Many voters are also furious with New Democracy and the other traditional ruling party, PASOK, blaming them for decades of corruption and waste which have left them with a ruined economy and one of the heaviest debt burdens in the world.
"I voted for the bailout because these are the terms that will keep us in Europe," said 66-year-old English teacher Koula Louizopoulou after casting her ballot in Athens, hinting that she had chosen New Democracy.
"It's the first time I feel depressed after voting, knowing that I voted again for those who created the problem, but we don't have another choice," she added.