A joke was circulating in Greece, only one of two countries in Europe along with Belgium where voting is compulsory, that to prevent the right-wing New Democracy from getting a large share of the votes one had a duty to lock up all the conservative-inclined grannies and granddads in their houses to stop them from voting.
And maybe it worked. New Democracy, though emerging as the largest party, only gained around 19 per cent of the vote, much less than the earlier polls were indicating. But the greatest shock was for the socialist Pasok, the previous ruling party, which came third with just 13 per cent, beaten by a new left-wing party called Syriza which won nearly 17 per cent of the vote.
Syriza wants to renegotiate the austerity package imposed on Greece as a condition for its bailout packages. This seemed to be the common theme across the myriad of new parties that sprang up, both on the left and right. By splitting the votes, they managed to end what has for the past 38 years since the collapse of the junta in 1974 been a cosy two-party system run by family dynasties and which has left Greece with a culture of nepotism, corruption and administrative incompetence.
Ominously for the euro project, the anti-austerity vote is in the majority. It cannot be ignored. Greece has seen its GDP decline for four years in a row and is now in its fifth year of recession with output forecast to fall by a further 5 per cent in 2012. Unemployment has risen to over 20 per cent and youth unemployment to 50 per cent.
Even if some sort of coalition is formed with the "pro-European" (if they can be called that) parties of Pasok and New Democracy achieving some deal with either the new leftist or right-wing parties, the problem is that the democratic legitimacy for it will be lacking. Ordinary Greeks feel they have been unfairly penalised and have had enough. There is real poverty now in Greece and the county is showing signs of xenophobia with a near-fascist anti-immigrant party, the New Dawn, managing to get 19 seats in parliament, having collected nearly 7 per cent of the vote. The situation is getting toxic and violence against both legal and illegal immigrants flared before the elections.
So where do we go from here? Whatever coalition emerges the bailout package and its conditions will have to be re-examined. The Greeks will feel emboldened by the election of François Hollande in France and the change in the tone of Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, who is now calling for greater emphasis on growth policies.
Greece of course still needs extra injections of cash and the stock market opened sharply lower yesterday. But the large number of loud and chatty voters milling around the local school in an Athens suburb where I watched my 18-year-old niece exercise her right to vote for the first time on Sunday afternoon did not seem to care. They all, whatever their political persuasion, just wanted one thing: change.
Vicky Pryce is a Greek-born City economist and former joint head of the UK Government Economic ServiceReuse content