ATHENS - An upstart radical leftist is racing neck and neck with the conservative heir of a prominent Greek family in an election on Sunday that will decide if Greece stays in the euro zone and which could spread turmoil across global financial markets.
Voters fed up with the harsh measures prescribed by international lenders in a 130 billion euro bailout punished mainstream parties in an inconclusive May 6 election and appear split over the choices offered in the repeat vote.
Conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, 61, has run on a strong pro-European ticket, warning Greeks angry with five years of austerity that giving up obligations agreed in the EU/IMF bailout keeping Greece afloat means a return to the drachma currency.
"These elections are about our children's future - whether we stay in the euro or not," Samaras told supporters in northern Greece on Wednesday. "That is what is at stake on Sunday."
Radical leftist SYRIZA party leader Alexis Tsipras, 37, has vowed to scrap the deal that plunged Greece into its worst recession in decades, to nationalise banks and stop privatisations, sending shockwaves across EU capitals and financial markets.
His message has resonated among Greeks desperate with record unemployment of nearly 23 percent and rounds of spending cuts.
The first vote catapulted him from fringe obscurity to leader of the second biggest party in Greece.
EU partners have warned that no more bailout money will be handed to Greece, which is expected to run out of cash in weeks, unless it meets its budget and reform pledges. Tsipras says the EU is bluffing and that he wants to keep Greece in the euro.
"If one country leaves the euro, the euro zone collapses," he told Greek TV on Thursday. "If they don't give us the next loan installment, the euro zone will collapse the day after."
The last opinion polls published two weeks before the vote ahead of a ban, showed the two running a tight race. Five polls put Samaras slightly ahead and two put Tsipras in the lead. Pollsters say the numbers have not changed dramatically since.
Once again, no party is expected to win outright and the biggest party is expected to launch negotiations to forge a pro-bailout or anti-bailout coalitions.
Analysts say it will be a Pyrrhic victory for whoever wins - Samaras will find it hard to govern for long with an empowered Tsipras protesting at the gates and Tsipras will realise he is inheriting a state on the verge of bankruptcy without bailout funds.
"It's possible that we will have a collapse no matter who is in government," said Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economics at Athens University. "There is no easy solution."
Unemployment hit 22.6 percent in the first quarter of the year amid a 6.5 percent contraction in the economy. Shops and businesses are shutting down by the dozens and the number of homeless lining the streets in Athens are multiplying.
Anger against an entrenched political class blamed for the crisis is running high.
"They've turned Greece from a sunny paradise to hell," said Dimitris Skizas, a 69-year-old whose pension has been cut. "People have lost their smiles, they are in despair and committing suicide. This is worse than the war in the 1940s."