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ATHENS, Greece – Cheered by thousands in a central Athens square, Alexis Tsipras made a promise that proved impossible to keep. A vote for his left-wing Syriza party would change Europe and punish the creditors who had imposed economic austerity on Greece.
That was eight months ago.
Prominent party members who deserted Syriza stood in the same spot Tuesday night, lining up to attack Tsipras and his short-lived government as Greeks head back to the polls Sunday with political parties fractured by the weight of a massive new international bailout that aims to prevent a potentially catastrophic default and Greece being forced out of the eurozone.
Tuesday's crowd at Omonia Square was much smaller and the rhetoric more bitter.
"A small group in the (government) leadership has surrendered and humiliated us," said Panagiotis Lafazanis, a former Syriza hardliner who served as Tsipras' energy minister and formed a breakaway party after Tsipras reached an agreement with eurozone countries to continue receiving rescue funding in exchange for harsh new spending cuts.
"Some people have turned the euro into religion. But it has become a dictatorship," said Lafazanis, who advocates Greece leaving Europe's joint currency.
Unlike the January election that brought Tsipras to power and a hastily called July referendum in which voters soundly rejected creditor reform proposals — only to see Tsipras' government later agree to them — Sunday's poll has drawn little enthusiasm. It is the third time this year that Greeks will be voting, with the economy still in dire straits, a quarter of workers jobless and capital controls limiting cash access to savings to 420 euros ($470) per week.
"What's the point of going back to the voting booth all the time? Nobody trusts anyone anymore," said 49-year-old Varavara Michaliarakou, who trained as a nursery school teacher and works as a nanny.
She has voted for four different parties since 2009 and still hasn't decided who to back on Sept. 20.
"They all lied to us and nothing has changed — it's still terrible," she said.
It is the significant percentage of undecided voters that the parties are vying to woo in the last few days of campaigning.
Opinion polls indicate a race too close to call, with Tsipras struggling to maintain the narrowest of leads over his main opponent, center-right New Democracy leader Evangelos Meimarakis. Under the Greek electoral system, whichever party comes first wins a bonus 50 seats in the country's 300-member parliament. But if opinion poll indications prove true, even that will not be enough to form a majority government, meaning the winner will have to seek support from smaller parties to form a coalition.
The lackluster campaign has been compounded by the realities of the choice Greeks are faced with. Whichever party wins, it will have little room for manoeuver given that the country's fiscal policy is pretty much dictated by the terms of its new three-year, 86 billion-euro ($97 billion) bailout, noted Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos, assistant professor of political science at the University of Athens.
The race is "open in terms of possible coalition partners and the mix of the next government, it's not open in terms of the major reforms that have to be taken," Sotiropoulos said. "There will be no further transfer of funds to Greece unless Greece starts changing basic patterns of the way the pension system works, taxation is enforced, and so on."
Nine political parties are in with a shot of reaching the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, complicating the coalition math. Newcomers could include Lafazanis' new far-left anti-austerity Popular Unity party and the eccentric Vassilis Leventis, a fringe party staple on the Greek political scene for decades, known mostly for rambling post-midnight diatribes against the political establishment and entertaining outbursts on a marginal TV channel.
Golden Dawn, founded as a neo-Nazi party three decades ago, is on course for third place. Some analysts believe it could end up with more than the roughly 6 percent it currently appears to have as supporters can be reluctant to admit their affiliation to opinion poll interviewers. The stridently anti-austerity and anti-immigrant party could attract voters angry with the prospect of continued austerity under the third bailout, despite the party's leadership and dozens of its members being on trial for a slew of offences.
Tsipras' former coalition partner, the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks, is hovering on the 3 percent margin, meaning it could fail to enter parliament and deprive Tsipras of his preferred partner should he win.
The Independent Greeks "pay the price of being a coalition partner of a government that has contributed to political instability in this country throughout 2015 and a coalition partner to a government which has been totally inefficient in managing the economy," Sotiropoulos said.
In such a scenario, the most likely coalition candidates would be the centrist To Potami, or The River, party, and the once-mighty socialist PASOK party which dominated Greek politics for decades but saw its voter base decimated in the wake of Greece's first bailout. But with both sharing few common views on the bailout with the formerly stridently anti-austerity Syriza, it would be an uneasy coalition.
The same two parties would likely share power with New Democracy should that party win Sunday's vote.
The two other potential outcomes would be no party having enough seats to form a government even by teaming team up with smaller parties, leading either to an unstable minority government or a new election; or a grand coalition between New Democracy and Syriza — something Tsipras has repeatedly ruled out.