Greek voters were in sour mood on Sunday, torn between anger at the budget cuts their leaders agreed in return for an international bailout, and fear of the consequences of ripping up that deal.

Voters balked at what they called an impossible choice - polarised between the leftist SYRIZA party, which rejects the EU-IMF bailout that keeps Greece from bankruptcy, and conservative New Democracy, which supports it - that could decide whether they remain in the euro zone.

It is the second ballot in as many months, after elections on May 6 failed to produce a government, deepening the crisis in the currency union and forcing a return to the polling booths.

"I voted with a heavy heart, for the first time for someone I don't believe in, but I hope he will keep us in Europe," said Orestis Barkas, 70, a retired lawyer, after voting in the leafy middle class Athens suburb of Psihiko.

"This is the last chance for our country."

Polls show Greeks overwhelmingly want to stay in the euro zone, and New Democracy has framed the election as a straight choice between the euro and a return to the drachma. SYRIZA promises that it can renegotiate the bailout without the need to leave the single currency.

The party's youthful leader Alexis Tsipras has dismissed repeated warnings from Greece's European partners that a new government must sign up fully to the accord or see funds cut off and Greece driven into bankruptcy.

Tsipras, a telegenic 37-year-old former student radical, has ridden a surge of public anger at both the crisis and the systemic corruption and cronyism blamed on New Democracy and the Socialist PASOK party, which between them had governed for decades before voters punished them both in May's election.

 

WRESTLING WITH DISGUST

Many Athenians deserted the city to vote in their provincial home towns, leaving the capital's streets quiet, with few people enjoying the summer sunshine at outdoor coffee shops.

Many voters appeared to be wrestling with their disgust at the old order and fear of the consequences of defying the rest of Europe and potentially being forced to go it alone and return to the drachma.

"I wish I didn't have to vote, but I did. It's very difficult having to choose between bad and worse," said Kelly Nerantzaki, 50, a saleswoman who cast her vote for one of the mainstream pro-bailout parties in downtown Athens.

"Unfortunately, the only realistic option is to vote for those who caused the country's problems. I don't think SYRIZA or the small parties have a chance; the Europeans won't accept them," she said.

Jason Perros, 30, a hotel manager, was unable to swallow that bitter pill.

"We simply can't go on like this, we can't keep voting for the two main parties that brought us here. I've been badly affected, not only financially - business is down - but also psychologically. I don't trust any party, but I know we need new blood."

"I don't see any other solution but to reject the politicians that brought us here once and for all," agreed Theodore Chaliotis, a 36-year old unemployed father of two, who voted or the first time in his life on May 6.

"I'm not afraid that we will be forced out of the euro. I think this is a fake dilemma."

By early afternoon, authorities said voting was proceeding smoothly, with few signs of serious trouble, apart from a report that an unexploded grenade was thrown outside a television station.

Older people typically tend to vote in the morning, while younger voters, from whom SYRIZA draws much of its support, often leave it until the afternoon.

A day after Greece surprised Europe with a victory over Russia that keeps them in the Euro 2012 soccer championships, perhaps to face Europe's paymaster Germany, various party leaders took advantage of the symbolism.

"Yesterday, our national team, which I warmly congratulate, proved that to stay in the euro, what we need is confidence, unity, determination and struggle, not fear and defeatism - that's how you stay in the Euro," said Panos Kammenos, head of the rebel conservative party Independent Greeks, which opposes the bailout. (Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Will Waterman)