The line between disillusionment and despair is a fine one, and it’s not easy to tell where Greeks fall as they prepare for their third bout of voting in less than eight months to choose what could be, if Alexis Tsipras is not returned to office, their seventh prime minister since the Greek debt crisis erupted in 2009.

Unlike the usual street circus of European elections, there are hardly any posters in the streets and campaign rallies are not drawing crowds. The election was called on short notice, the parties are strapped for cash, and Greeks don’t normally hold elections in summer.

And after the dramatic shift to the left-wing Syriza in January’s election, followed by the impassioned vote against austerity in a referendum in July — all with no reduction in austerity and little progress on reform — voters are distinctly disenchanted with politics. A Communist Party rally on the central Syntagma Square on Wednesday evening featured earsplitting loudspeakers and blocked traffic, but only a piddling crowd.

(Photo - Campaign posters for former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens on Friday. Credit Orestis Panagiotou/European Pressphoto Agency)

Besides, there’s now a bigger and far more dramatic crisis out there as wave after wave of Syrian refugees overwhelm Greek islands off the Turkish coast, for many the point of entry into a Europe that has no idea what to do with them. With as many as 1,500 refugees landing every day on the tiny island of Leros, for example, the deputy mayor, Yiannis Konstantinides, confessed to the BBC that nobody had even realized there’s an election on Sunday.

Apathy, however, does not necessarily translate into despair. After almost six years of falling incomes and lost jobs, living with crisis is nothing new, and there are a few bits of heartening news. The summer tourist season was good, and the government reported on Thursday that the jobless rate slipped from 26.6 percent in the first quarter of 2015 to 24.6 in the second. That is still eye-popping, but then a year earlier it was 27.8 percent. And a good many people think the crisis has hit bottom.

The election is the latest bid by Mr. Tsipras, the fiery head of the Syriza party, to use voting to get out of a political corner. Mr. Tsipras, a peripheral political force before the crisis, rode popular fury at the austerity imposed on Greece by outside creditors to overthrow the center-right New Democratic government in elections in January.

But despite dramatic brinkmanship in negotiations with Germany and other lenders, despite showy gestures like suggesting he would get funding from Russia or China, and despite a desperate referendum in July in which a large majority voted against accepting the austerity conditions for another bailout, he failed to sway the lenders and ended up signing on their dotted line. The alternatives — national bankruptcy and an exit from Europe’s common currency — were too frightening even for Mr. Tsipras. Hard-line members of Syriza defected, so two months after his referendum, Mr. Tsipras called a quick election, hoping to forge a new power base.

Polls, which have been notoriously off the mark in recent elections, have Syriza neck-and-neck with New Democracy, with neither likely to form a government without coalition partners. Who would partner with whom is one unknown.

In any case, whoever emerges at the helm will be bound by the bailout deal Mr. Tsipras signed with creditors, including the troika of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. New Democracy voted for the deal, and would not be in a position to disown it. So however the election comes off, the next government will be locked into more austerity and more grappling with creditors.

The most important question is whether the next government will be prepared to tackle the reforms Greece needs, and that so far have been halfhearted or nonexistent: deregulation, liberalization of the economy, a turn away from tax evasion and clientelism.

Over the years of crisis, popular reactions have gone from fury to illusions that the austerity can be lifted without fundamental reform. The latest and most dramatic such fantasy was Mr. Tsipras.

“The crisis, according to many analysts, ‘devours’ one government after another since 2009,” George Kaminis, the popular, politically independent mayor of Athens, told the Athens Democracy Forum organized this past week by The International New York Times. “I do not disagree, but I will add that in digesting governments, the crisis also dissolves the illusions that successive party leaders cultivate to seize power or to keep it.”

By that measure, the best result on Sunday would be a convincing display of disillusionment.

by The editorial board of

"The International New York Times"