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Greeks emphatically reject austerity, elect radical leftist party in historic vote

ATHENS – After five years of extreme austerity prescribed to treat an epidemic of debt, a battered but defiant Greece on Sunday rejected the medicine.

With millions of voters turning out – from graffiti-scarred lanes in the Parthenon’s shadow to islands shores lapped by aqua-green waves – the country delivered a historic win to Syriza, a radical leftist party that could put Greece on a collision course with the rest of Europe. The expected showdown has already rattled Greek financial markets and may challenge the core principle behind Europe’s currency union.

As party supporters cheered in the streets of Athens, an official projection released Sunday evening showed that Syriza had secured just over 36 percent of the vote, well ahead of its nearest rival but just short of the support needed to form a government without relying on a coalition partner. Late Sunday, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called the party’s charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsipras, to concede.

Tsipras had campaigned on an upbeat if improbable platform of reviving the country’s beaten-down economy by turning on the taps of government stimulus. He vowed to hire back laid-off workers, raise the minimum wage, expand access to health insurance and provide electricity to those who can no longer afford it.

Those pledges resonated powerfully in a nation where a third of the population lives at or below the poverty line, following years of cuts and recession. But the election of the first radical leftist government in the history of the European Union represents a provocative challenge to the international creditors who bailed Greece out to the tune of $284 billion on the condition that the country rein in its bloated costs.

Once in government, the party has said, it will demand a renegotiation of the bailout terms and cancellation of a sizable chunk of Greek’s debt. The creditors, dominated by Germany, are unlikely to yield easily – raising fears of a showdown that ends with Greece exiting the euro, imperiling the rest of the currency union along the way.

“The whole idea of the euro is its irrevocability, and the moment you break that, you have no euro any more,” said George Pagoulatos, a professor at the Athens University of Economics and a former government adviser. “This is a path down which no one wants to go.”

And yet, Greek voters appeared ready to take the risk. Many said on Sunday they felt their country has hit rock bottom five years after it was forced to turn to a troika of international creditors for a massive bailout. Greece has little to lose, they said, by gambling on a party promising radical change.

“The way things are right now, it’s impossible to survive,” said Helen Zorba, 55, a civil servant who said her pay has been cut by 20 percent in recent years while her taxes have gone up. “People are losing their dignity. You shouldn’t have to go to the soup kitchen in order to live.”

As the public’s desperation has risen, so too has Syriza’s popularity, with middle-class voters abandoning the centrist parties that have dominated Greek politics for decades and casting their lot with a group dominated by Marxist university professors and Communist activists.

“People say Syriza doesn’t have the experience to govern. But the people who have the experience and the know-how to govern are the ones who failed Greece,” Zorba said.