Greeks began voting on Sunday in a parliamentary election expected to bring to power the radical leftist Syriza party, which has pledged to take on international lenders and roll back painful austerity measures imposed during years of economic crisis.
Barring a huge upset, victory for Syriza would produce the first eurozone government openly committed to cancelling the austerity terms of its EU and IMF-backed bailout program. Syriza has remained firmly ahead of conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy party in opinion polls throughout the election campaign, which was called two years ahead of schedule.
"In Greece, democracy will return," Syriza’s 40-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras told reporters as he voted in Athens. "The message is that our common future in Europe is not the future of austerity."
A Syriza win would represent another turning point for Europe after last week's announcement by the European Central Bank (ECB) of a massive injection of cash into the bloc's flagging economy following years of attempts to clamp down on budgets and pushing countries to pass structural reforms.
Polls close early Sunday evening with 9.8 million Greeks eligible to vote. An exit poll is expected immediately after voting ends, with the first official projections due hours later and results updated throughout the night.
While Syriza has seen a strong showing in opinion polls, a significant portion of Greek voters remained undecided until the last minute, suggesting that Syriza might struggle to win enough parliamentary seats to form a government on its own. If so, Syriza may have to form a coalition with a smaller party.
Still, final polls on Friday gave the party a lead of up to 6.7 points with 31.2 to 33.4 percent of the vote, close to the level needed for an outright victory.
After its most severe crisis since the fall of the military junta in 1974, Greece's economy has shrunk by some 25 percent, thousands of businesses have closed, wages and pensions have been slashed and unemployment among youth is over 50 percent.
What’s more, the country's massive public debt has climbed from 146 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 to 175.5 percent in 2014, the second highest in the world, according to Reuters.
Greece's economy last year emerged from recession for the first time in six years and unemployment has begun to come down slightly, but it may be years before the country recovers.
Tsipras' campaign slogan "Hope is coming!" has resonated with austerity-weary voters, despite Samaras' warnings that a Syriza government could bankrupt Greece.
"We are voting for Alexis Tsipras to put an end to this misery," said Stavroula Gourdourou, an unemployed mother who voted for the ruling conservatives in 2012. "Enough is enough! We won't let them destroy our children."
Activist Olga Balaoura, who helped form Syriza’s youth arm a decade ago, told Al Jazeera that the party would breathe new life into her generation.
“The youth felt like there’s no future. We stopped dreaming about our lives,” Balaoura said. “In a few days, a new left government will be elected. We hope that Syriza along with the people will give new hope, a new life cycle to the Greek society.”
Renouncing much of the firebrand rhetoric that was once his hallmark, Tsipras has promised to keep Greece in the eurozone and dropped threats to "tear up" the tough requirements of its 240 billion euro bailout.
He has also promised to renegotiate a deal with the European Commission, ECB and IMF, and write off much of Greece's 320 billion-euro debt, despite clear signs from partners that they would refuse.
At the same time, he wants to raise the minimum wage, cut power prices for low-income families, cut taxes and reverse pension and public sector pay cuts.
Financial markets have been on edge ahead of the elections, although the ECB's massive bond-buying program and growing confidence that a Syriza-led government could compromise with its creditors boosted confidence last week.
But Syriza still faces stiff resistance from the rest of Europe over demands for a debt write-off, raising the specter of Greece being forced out of the eurozone if no agreement is reached.
Al Jazeera and wire services