People cast their ballots in booths at a polling station in an Athens school on Jan. 25, 2015.
Lefteris Pitarakis—AP
By Simon Shuster
Updated: January 25, 2015 4:26 PM ET

Exit polls in Greece’s national elections suggested an easy win for the radical leftwing Syriza party on Sunday evening, which has promised to “cancel” austerity and defy the European institutions that have given Greece some $270 billion in bailout loans since 2010.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras earlier summed up the mood of the day with a stark message for the voters taking part in the day’s elections: “Today we decide if we are going forward or if we are going towards the unknown.” Evidently, his electorate prefers the unknown to the five years of economic austerity they have faced under his government. Later on Sunday, Samaras conceded defeat in the election, the Associated Press reports.

A victory for Syriza, whose ranks include an array of leftists ranging from Marxists to greens, would be a stunning repudiation of the course the European Union has charted out of the worst economic crisis in its history. But it would also send Greece, and Europe, into uncharted waters.

In the best case scenario, Syriza’s success promises to initiate a standoff between a new Greek government and its European lenders, particularly Germany, over the terms of Greece’s bailout program. That could potentially bring about a reduction in Greek debt that will force other troubled economies in Europe to question whether they, too, deserve an easing of their loan obligations.

In the worst case, Greece could be pushed toward a default on its debt and a rancorous exit from the Eurozone, risking the collapse of the common currency that unites and fuels most European economies. Global markets could then be thrown into a potentially destructive downward spiral.

While voting in Athens, the 40-year-old leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, said the vote would mark “the return of dignity” to Greece. His party was expected to get 36% and 39% of the popular vote, according to the exit polls, which are seen as a rough but reliable projection of the final results.

In the country’s 300-member legislature, that would translate into between 148 and 154 seats. So the key question that remained on Sunday night was whether Syriza would win an outright majority and a mandate to form a new government, or whether it would need to find a coalition partner.

“For them a coalition might be better,” says Eleni Panagiotarea, a research fellow at the Eliamep think tank in Athens. “They have promised so many things to so many people that they may need a coalition partner to blame when they eventually fail to deliver.”

Many of Syriza’s promises do seem unrealistic. On the campaign trail, Tsipras pledged to drastically raise the minimum wage, hike social spending and cut taxes, all while keeping the federal budget balanced. He has also promised to keep Greece in the Eurozone while defying the terms of its E.U. bailout.

But regardless of whether such promises can be kept, they seem to have appealed to an electorate suffering from the impositions of austerity measures. The size of the Greek economy has contracted by a quarter since the onset of the financial crisis in 2009. Unemployment has soared to about a quarter of the population, with more than half of young people jobless in Greece. Under the spending cuts Samaras’ government has been forced to impose as a condition of its loans, roughly a third of the country’s 9.8 million voters have seen their social security and medical insurance slashed.

So it has long seemed only a matter of time before these deprivations brought about a revolt at the ballot box. As the European nation worst hit by the financial crisis, Greece has now become the first to see public resentment bring an anti-austerity party to the threshold of power. But in the months and years ahead, other E.U. members weighed down by crippling debt will be watching Greece to see whether it manages to rid itself of austerity in a face-off with European creditors.

Success in that effort could encourage the rise of similar political forces in debt-laden countries like Portugal and Italy, piling ever more pressure on European banks and donor countries to write off the loans they have given to their struggling neighbors. The strain on the E.U.’s economic stability would be severe, but not quite as severe as it would be in the case of a Greek exit from the Eurozone. Such an outcome would threaten to unwind the common market that has kept Europe united for a generation. That would surely mark a step into the unknown.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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