Radical anti-austerity party Syriza headed for a stunning victory in Greece’s election Sunday, exit polls showed, putting it on a collision course with the EU over plans to rewrite the country’s massive bailout deal.
Syriza took between 36 and 38 percent of the vote, according to updated exit polls, compared to between 26 percent and 28 percent for the conservative New Democracy party of incumbent Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
If the result is confirmed, Syriza would become the first anti-austerity party in government in Europe and its 40-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras would be Greece’s youngest prime minister in 150 years.
Syriza has vowed to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s 240-billion-euro ($269 billion) bailout with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and reverse the public sector spending cuts and labour market reforms that were introduced in return for the emergency aid.
The prospect of Greece defaulting on its debt repayments under a Syriza government is likely to spark fears the country could be forced to leave the eurozone.
“This appears to be a historic victory, a message that does not only concern the Greek people, it resounds all over Europe and brings relief,” Syriza party spokesman Panos Skourletis told Mega TV.
– ‘Different kind of politics’ –
The first official results are expected at 1930 GMT but thousands of Syriza supporters have already gathered around the party’s main campaign platform in a central Athens square to hail their leader.
Projections showed that Syriza may win up to 154 seats in the 300-seat parliament, meaning it could rule without a coalition partner.
Antonis Balousis, a 54-year-old butcher, said: “This is a very important victory for Greece and Europe.
“We are going to prove that a different kind of politics is possible in Europe.”
Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and the pro-European To Potami are in a neck-and-neck race for third place with between 6.0 percent and 7.0 percent apiece, according to exit polls.
Analysts said Syriza’s absolute majority hinged on whether a new party formed by former socialist prime minister George Papandreou would muster the 3.0 percent required for parliamentary representation.
Tsipras said as he voted that Europe must find an alternative to austerity, after six years in which Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter and unemployment has soared over 25 percent.
– Regain ‘dignity’ –
“Our common future in Europe is not the future of austerity, it is the future of democracy, solidarity and cooperation,” Tsipras said as he cast his ballot in the capital.
He said Greek people would regain their “dignity” under a Syriza government.
But Samaras said as he cast his ballot that Greeks would be taking a huge risk by turning to Syriza just as the austerity measures he supported could be about to bear fruit.
“Today we decide if are going forward or if we are going towards the unknown,” Samaras said.
A victory for Syriza could pave the way for other anti-austerity parties to break through in Europe, such as Spain’s Podemos.
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told a rally of his supporters in Spain on Sunday: “Hope is coming, fear is fleeing. Syriza, Podemos, we will win.”
Tsipras says he will confront the “troika” of lenders — the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank — to secure a substantial reduction in Greece’s debts that have spiralled to 318 billion euros.
He says international lenders have put Greece in an “unsustainable” position, forcing it to make ever greater debt repayments while its economic output shrivels.
The IMF has warned Greece — which has had three elections in five years and is only slowly emerging from six years of recession — that failure to repay its debts will carry “consequences”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen as the driving force in the EU’s austerity drive, said Friday she wanted Greece to stay in the eurozone “despite the difficulties”.
Unicredit chief economist Erik Nielsen said Greece was in for a “volatile month” and a deal was still possible, but the viability of an anti-austerity government was less certain.
The election was triggered when the Greek parliament failed to elect a new president in December.
Tsipras, who grew up in a middle-class Athens family and trained as a civil engineer, says Syriza wants to smash the “oligarchy” that has traditionally dominated Greek politics and the media.