ATHENS Greek voters enraged by economic hardship deserted governing parties in droves in an election on Sunday, according to exit polls that threw doubt on the country's future in the euro zone.
Polls by six different pollsters indicated the only two parties supporting an EU/IMF bailout that is keeping Greece from bankruptcy would likely fall short of enough support to form a stable coalition government.
The exit polls showed conservative New Democracy and Socialist PASOK, who have dominated Greece for decades, reaching a maximum of 37 percent of the vote combined.
In a huge upset, a previously small leftwing party, the Left Coalition, was predicted to take around the same share of the vote as PASOK with 15-18 percent. In the previous election in 2009 they had less than 5 percent.
PASOK, which took 44 percent of the vote in a landslide victory in that election, was shown with between 14 and 18 percent, according to polls by Kapa Research and a pool of five companies for Greek television stations.
New Democracy also appeared particularly hard hit with a vote share way below opinion poll predictions of around 25 percent.
If confirmed by official results, the election could plunge Greece into new political turmoil, reigniting a euro zone debt crisis first detonated by Athens in 2009 and starting it down a path that could take it out of the euro.
The exit polls showed Greeks fuming at record unemployment, collapsing businesses and steep wage cuts had ignored warnings that a vote against the harsh terms of the bailout would push Greece towards bankruptcy.
Earlier during voting leaders from all sides emphasised the importance of the vote for the future of Greece, which is suffering one of Europe's worst postwar recessions.
"We all agree that these elections are perhaps the most crucial and today each of us is deciding not only who will govern the country but also Greece's path for the next decades," said outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, as he cast his vote in Athens.
But many Greeks expressed their rage at the ruling parties as they voted.
"My vote was a protest vote because they cut my pension and there are more measures waiting for us around the corner," said 75-year-old pensioner Kalliopi, her fists clenched in anger.
"I live in a basement but pay the same (property) tax as someone who lives in a penthouse," said Kalliopi after voting in Athens.
International lenders and investors fear success for the small parties opposed to the bailout could lead to Greece reneging on the harsh terms for the programme, risking a sovereign default and dragging the euro zone back into the worst crisis since its creation.
Euro zone paymaster Germany has warned there would be "consequences" to an anti-bailout vote and the EU and IMF insist whoever wins the election must stick to austerity if they want to receive the aid that keeps Greece afloat.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Lefteris Papadimas, Dina Kyriakidou and George Georgiopoulos.; Writing by Barry Moody,; editing by Mike Peacock)