ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Greeks angered by a vicious and protracted financial crisis punished their two main parties in national elections Sunday, with exit polls projecting no outright winner and no party gaining enough votes to form a government.
The conservative New Democracy party appeared the most likely to win the top spot, while the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn seemed set to gain parliamentary seats for the first time. Days of talks are likely to ensue as parties attempt to hammer out a governing coalition.
The election will determine the country's course after years of austerity measures that have outraged voters but which were critical in convincing international creditors to extend Greece billions in loans to keep its debt-saddled economy afloat.
According to the exit poll commissioned by four major television stations, New Democracy was projected to win between 17 percent and 20 percent of the vote, the formerly majority PASOK socialists between 14 percent and 17 percent, and the left-wing Radical Left Coalition, or Syriza, between 15.5 percent and 18.5 percent. The figures, however, all fell within the margin of error.
The outgoing governing coalition consisted of PASOK and New Democracy. However, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras had insisted before the election that he would not form another coalition with his socialist rivals, saying such a prospect would require too much haggling to be effective.
"The truth is here - the reality of this result is that at the moment this produces no government," said Theodoros Pangalos, outgoing deputy prime minister and senior PASOK official. "It is not a question at the moment of who gets a little more or a little less."
Greece is heavily dependent on billions of euros worth of international rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund, and must impose yet more austerity measures next month to keep the bailout funds flowing and prevent a default and a potentially disastrous exit from the group of nations that use the euro currency.
Thirty-two parties were vying for the support of nearly 10 million registered voters, many of whom were undecided on the eve of the election.
Golden Dawn, which has vowed to kick out immigrants and mine Greece's borders with Turkey, was predicted to win between 6 and 8 percent, well above the 3 percent needed to enter parliament. "Greek citizens should not fear us, the only ones who should fear us are the traitors," Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos told The Associated Press.
Official results were expected later Sunday night. Whatever they show, the outcome will be a blow to both New Democracy and PASOK, which have dominated Greek politics for nearly four decades but are paying the price for the country's financial crisis.
"This is a major political earthquake, that has devastated PASOK," senior New Democracy official Panos Panagiotopoulos said. "New Democracy remains the first party but has a very low support number. It is an explosion of anger and despair. The fallout has affected many parties - fairly and unfairly."
Whichever party wins the most votes will get a bonus of 50 seats in the 300-member parliament. But with percentages so low and between seven and 10 parties projected to enter parliament, that will not be enough to form a governing majority of 151 seats.
The first party will be given a mandate to form a coalition, and will have three days for negotiations. If it fails, the mandate will go to the second party for a further three days, and then on to the third party.
If no coalition emerges, the country will have to have another election - a prospect which has alarmed Greece's international creditors.
New Democracy and PASOK were uneasy coalition partners in a temporary six-month power-sharing deal forged last November following a political crisis that saw former PASOK head George Papandreou resign as prime minister. In 2009, Papandreou had led his party to a landslide election win, earning 43.92 percent of the vote.
Demetris Nellas and Nebi Qena in Athens contributed.