ATHENS Greek voters enraged by economic hardship will punish traditional parties in a highly uncertain election on Sunday that could plunge the country into new political chaos and shake the entire euro zone.
At stake is whether Greece sticks with the harsh terms of a hugely unpopular 130 billion euro ($170.83 billion) EU/IMF bailout, or heads down a path that could see it ejected from the single currency, with dire risks for other EU peripheral states like Spain and Italy.
Wages and benefits have been slashed, unemployment has rocketed and thousands of businesses have collapsed. Furious Greeks have been turning to small, anti-bailout parties to punish traditional politicians they blame for the crisis.
A record 8-10 parties are expected to enter parliament, and public outrage with the main parties could turn at least four small groups into potential power-brokers.
The last polls published before the election showed the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties - which between them dominated Greece for decades and now rule jointly - would scrape just enough votes to renew their uneasy coalition. They are the only parties to support the bailout.
No new surveys have been allowed to be published for two weeks and pollsters warn the result may be a surprise.
"We voted for them since the 1980s and we feel cheated," municipal worker Christina Theodorakou, 50, said of the two big parties. She has seen her monthly salary cut by 500 euros since the crisis began.
"We built a life over the years and they destroyed it overnight. Their campaigns are addressing idiots. I'll vote for a small party," she said.
Her daughter Alexandra, 18, a nursing student who was joining her for lunch in the western port city of Patras, is old enough to vote for the first time but said she probably wouldn't bother: "Why go? Nobody can promise us a better future."
With the anti-bailout vote divided among the raft of upstart groups, the two big parties, led by New Democracy, are expected to go into difficult coalition talks immediately after the vote.
The big question is whether they will have enough seats to govern without having to rely on one or more of the smaller parties that oppose the bailout.
"It is the most difficult election we've ever had to predict," said Ilias Nikolakopoulos of Opinion pollsters, a veteran of more than 10 Greek elections. "Days before the polls, voters are still undecided and their behavior is unpredictable."
If New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras and PASOK boss Evangelos Venizelos do not eke out enough votes to rule, they have few options to win additional support.
The Democratic Left of Fotis Kouvelis, a splinter from the Left Coalition, is the most moderate of the four parties vying for third place. If he refuses to join a pro-bailout government, the two may have to turn to even smaller groupings, such as that led by former New Democracy foreign minister Dora Bakoyanni.
"The two main parties must get serious. It's the worst pre-election campaign I've ever seen," Nikolakopoulos said. "They both promise things they should have done as a coalition government. They are not convincing."
His views are echoed at tavernas and coffee shops across the country, where hardship and anger at politicians for decades of mismanagement and corruption are obscuring the big question - whether Greeks want to stay in the common European currency.
To the shock of mainstream politicians, disgusted Greeks are even turning to groups condemned by the mainstream parties as extremists, such as the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn, which is expected to enter parliament for the first time.
Venizelos has appealed to voters not to let "neo-Nazis goose-step into parliament."
The majority of Greeks, who have regularly taken to the streets in violent protests, abhor austerity measures demanded by international lenders, but polls show they want Greece to stay in the euro.
"New Democracy and PASOK must convince voters that however angry they are, they must not risk euro zone membership," said Costas Panagopoulos of ALCO pollsters. "Politically, there is only one realistic scenario."
European partners and international lenders see a New Democracy-PASOK coalition as the only viable option to keep Greece on the path of fiscal probity and push reforms.
Election rules mean the two main parties could take a severe pounding and still cling to power. They shared 77 percent of the vote in 2009, but would still hold a decent parliamentary majority if their combined share fell below 45 percent.
The party that places first in the election automatically gets an extra 50 seats to make it easier to reach the target of 151 seats needed to form a government. Small parties must get at least 3 percent of the vote to win any seats.
If no party wins outright, as is expected, the president gives the biggest group - expected to be New Democracy - three days to form a government. If it fails, the second biggest party would be given a chance, and then the next one, until all parties have had a go.
If they all fail, new elections would be called in about 20-25 days. That would inflict more political uncertainty at a time when Greece has to come up with an additional 11 billion euros of spending cuts to please international lenders and continue to get cash essential for its survival.
Even if the two main parties command a majority between them, tough negotiations would follow to forge a common agenda and decide a prime minister.
Samaras, who wants to boost growth by cutting taxes and renegotiating parts of the bailout, will insist on leading the government. Venizelos, who has proposed spreading the bailout pain over three years instead of two, would rather find a third party candidate and seek even broader consensus.
Greece's strongest political personalities from the right and left, the two veterans are expected to lock horns even after they clinch a deal.
"In theory, they both signed up for the bailout. Whether they'll implement its demands, that's another story," said Ben May of Capital Economics. "Greece's problems are not over."
(Editing by Barry Moody and Peter Graff)