A Greek woman carries a child as she leaves the booth after voting during the elections in Athens, Sunday, June 17, 2012. / AP Photo/Petros Karadjias
(AP) ATHENS, Greece - In an election crucial for Greece, Europe and the world, exit polls on Sunday showed the two top contenders in Greece to be neck-and-neck.
The outcome of Sunday's vote could determine whether Greece remains in the euro or is forced to leave the joint currency, a move that could drag down other European countries and have potentially catastrophic consequences for the global economy.
The exit polls showed that the conservative New Democracy party is projected to win between 27.5 and 30.5 percent of the vote while the anti-bailout radical left Syriza party may get 27 to 30 percent.
Syriza head Alexis Tsipras has vowed to cancel the terms of Greece's international bailout deal and repeal its austerity measures a move many think will force Greece to leave the 17-nation eurozone. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras says his top priority is to stay in the euro but renegotiate some terms of the bailout.
Whichever party comes first in Sunday's vote gets a bonus of 50 seats in the 300-member Parliament.
As central banks stood ready to intervene in case of financial turmoil, Greece held its second national election in just six weeks to try to select a new government after an inconclusive ballot on May 6.
The two parties vying to win have starkly different views about what to do about the 240 billion euros ($300 billion) in bailout loans that Greece has been given by international lenders. One wants to tear up the deals and void the harsh austerity measures demanded by lenders that have caused Greek living standards to plummet. The other backs the bailout deal but wants to amend it.
The choice the most critical in decades could determine whether Greece abandons the joint euro currency and returns to its old currency, the drachma. But there are no rules governing a country's exit from the eurozone, and a Greek exit could spark a panic that other debt-strapped European nations Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy- might also have to leave.
That domino scenario known in economic terms as contagion could engulf the euro, causing a global financial panic not unlike the one that gripped the world in 2008 after the investment firm Lehman Brothers failed in the U.S.
The vote Sunday was also coming after a difficult week for Spain and Italy, which saw their borrowing costs soar. Tens of thousands of Italian workers rallied Saturday in Rome to protest pension cuts, tax hikes and labor reforms.
The big question Sunday was how far deep Greek anger at the bailout terms would propel the radical left, anti-bailout Syriza party led by 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras. But no party is likely to win enough votes to form a government on its own, meaning a coalition will have to be formed to avoid yet another election.
"I'd like to see something change for the country in general, including regarding the bailout," said Vassilis Stergiou, a voter in Athens. "But at least for us to get organized and at the very least do something."