Anti-austerity party Syriza won a historic victory in Greece's election on Sunday (Jan 25), partial results showed, setting up a confrontation with the EU over its plans to renegotiate the country's massive bailout.
The left-wing party took over 36 per cent of the vote compared to 28 per cent for the conservative New Democracy party of incumbent Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, with more than half of ballots counted.
Syriza are almost certain to become the first anti-austerity party in power in Europe and its leader Alexis Tsipras, 40, would be Greece's youngest prime minister in 150 years.
As the result became clear, Tsipras told thousands of flag-waving supporters in Athens: "Greece is leaving behind disastrous austerity."
He vowed to renegotiate the terms of Greece's €240-billion (US$269 billion) bailout with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. "I can assure you the new government will cooperate with the creditors and negotiate a new mutually viable solution," Tsipras said.
The possibility of Greece defaulting on its debt repayments under a Syriza government is likely to spark renewed fears the country could be forced to leave the eurozone - a so-called "Grexit". Financial markets had already been spooked at the prospect of Syriza coming to power before the election.
In a sombre statement conceding defeat, Samaras said: "I hand over a country that is part of the EU and the euro. For the good of this country, I hope the next government will maintain what has been achieved."
Sunday's parliamentary polls were Greece's fourth general election in five years, including back-to-back votes in 2012.
Tsipras will quickly come under pressure to deliver on his pledges to reverse the sweeping public sector spending cuts and labour market reforms that were introduced in exchange for the 2010 bailout.
Reform minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of New Democracy, congratulated Syriza but said it had made promises it would find hard to keep. "It is clear the Greek people believe there is an easier way out than what the government has been saying. It is a difficult night for New Democracy," he said.
The latest projections showed that Syriza had fewer than the 151 seats it requires in the 300-seat parliament to govern alone. A likely coalition partner is To Potami (The River), a pro-European party that was in fourth place with nearly six per cent, behind the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
The virulently anti-immigration party is on track to almost equal the 18 seats it held in the last parliament despite a criminal investigation that has seen many of its top leadership awaiting trial on charges including murder. It is highly unlikely to be part of a coalition government.
Syriza supporters gathered around the main campaign platform in a central Athens square where Tsipras said he would usher in a new era of politics.
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."
A victory for Syriza could open the way for other radical parties opposed to austerity to break through in Europe, such as Spain's Podemos.
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told a rally of his supporters in the Spanish city of Valencia on Sunday: "Hope is coming, fear is fleeing. Syriza, Podemos, we will win."
Italy said it was prepared to work with a Syriza government in Greece. "We think that after this vote we will have new opportunities to pursue change in Europe to create growth, investment and the fight against unemployment," Italy's EU affairs minister Sandro Gozi said.
'PERIOD OF UNCERTAINTY'
Tsipras has said he will immediately seek a 50-per cent reduction in Greece's debts that have spiralled to €318 billion (US$354 billion). 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 is only slowly emerging from six years of recession - that failure to repay its debts will carry "consequences".
Analysts said the eurozone was set for a new bout of volatility. "A period of uncertainty and heightened market nervousness now seems likely," said Jonathan Loynes of Capital Economics.
Unicredit chief economist Erik Nielsen said Greece was in for a "volatile month" and a deal on it debt was still possible, but the viability of an anti-austerity government was less certain.
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".
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.
A Communist activist in his youth who revered Che Guevara, the father-of-two has tweaked his image as power beckoned but still steadfastly refuses to wear a tie in keeping with his radical roots.