Greece on Sunday appeared to reject the punishing economics of austerity and send a warning signal to the rest of Europe as exit polls showed the left-wing Syriza party with a strong lead in national elections, leaving the party’s tough-talking leader, Alexis Tsipras, likely to become the next prime minister. Exit polls, released on national television after voting stations closed at 7 p.m., showed Syriza running well ahead of the governing center-right New Democracy Party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and in a good position to win a plurality in the multiparty race. It remained unclear whether Syriza would be able to win an outright parliamentary majority, or if it would have to form a coalition with one or more of the trailing parties. Syriza’s likely victory would represent a dramatic milestone for Europe at a time when continuing economic weakness has stirred an angry, populist backlash from France to Spain to Italy, as more voters grow fed up with policies that demand sacrifice to address the discipline of financial markets without delivering more jobs and prosperity. Syriza would become the first anti-austerity party to take power in a eurozone country, and would shatter the two-party political establishment that has dominated Greece for four decades.
“Democracy will return to Greece,” said Mr. Tsipras, 40, speaking to a swarm of reporters and photographers as he cast his ballot at an Athens voting station. “The message is that our common future in Europe is not the future of austerity.”
Youthful, with a seemingly unflappable demeanor, Mr. Tsipras has worked diligently to soften his image as an anti-Europe radical, joking that his opponents had accused him of everything except stealing other men’s wives. On the campaign trail, he has promised to clean up Greece’s corrupt political system, reform the country’s public administration and reduce the tax burden on the middle class while cracking down on tax evasion by the country’s oligarchical business class.
But his biggest promise — and the one that has stirred deep anxiety in Brussels and Berlin as well as on financial markets — has been his pledge to force Greece’s creditors, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, to renegotiate the terms of the country’s 240 billion euro financial bailout. Squeezed by belt-tightening policies intended to stabilize the government’s finances, Greece has endured a historic collapse since the 2009 economic crisis, as economic output has shrunk by 25 percent and unemployment still hovers at roughly 26 percent.