Greek left-winger vies for anti-austerity coalition
The leader of the hard-left Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras (pictured) begins talks on Wednesday to form a coalition government, but faced an uphill battle as Greece’s main parties hesitated at his call to scrap the country’s EU-IMF bailout deal.
REUTERS - Radical leftist Alexis Tsipras meets the leaders of Greece's mainstream parties on Wednesday to try to form a coalition government, an effort seen as doomed after he demanded they first agree to tear up the country's EU/IMF bailout deal.
An inconclusive election on Sunday has left Athens in political disarray, with no clear path to form a government, a new election likely within weeks and speculation escalating that Greece could be pushed out of Europe's single currency bloc.
Voters enraged by economic hardship repudiated the two parties which led Greece for decades - conservative New Democracy and Socialist PASOK - the only groups that back the 130 billion-euro bailout which saved Greece from bankruptcy.
The remote chance of Tsipras forming a coalition faded even further on Tuesday when New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras promptly rejected his demand to scrap the bailout, warning such a move could drive the debt-choked country out of the euro.
"Mr. Tsipras asked me to put my signature to the destruction of Greece. I will not do this," Samaras said. "The country cannot afford to play with fire."
Tsipras's leftist party placed second on Sunday, while New Democracy and PASOK - which between them had 77 percent of the vote just three years ago - saw their combined share fall to just 32 percent and PASOK reduced to third place.
Samaras was given the first chance to form a government but failed. On Tuesday Tsipras was given three days to try. He will meet Socialist PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos at 1500 GMT on Wednesday and Samaras at 1600 GMT.
If, as increasingly seems likely, no politician is able to cobble together a majority in the 300-seat parliament, a new election would have to be held in 3-4 weeks. Samaras may be hoping Greeks will give him a stronger mandate in a new vote.
"After Samaras's response to Tsipras today, that particular bridge (the chance of a coalition deal between these parties) has been exploded, burned," said Theodore Couloumbis, political analyst for Athens-based think-tank ELIAMEP.
Rivals for decades, New Democracy and PASOK had been ruling jointly in an uneasy coalition that negotiated last year's bailout, which saw lenders demand ever-deeper spending cuts in a country already suffering five straight years of recession.
Most Greeks say they want to keep the euro currency - widely seen as impossible without the bailout - but they are furious with the two mainstream political parties they blame for the recession, record high unemployment and endemic corruption.
Most believe spending cuts demanded by the EU and International Monetary Fund are only making the situation worse by increasing unemployment and preventing economic recovery.
Even with a system that gave first-placed New Democracy an extra 50 seats - designed to make it easier to form stable governments - it and PASOK together fell short of a majority to renew their coalition, with only 149 seats between them.
On the streets of Athens, voters voiced exasperation over the lack of a deal between parties.
"They are all saying they don't want to cooperate with anyone else. What does this show? All they care about is being prime minister, nobody cares about the country," said Vasilia Konidary, who voted for Drasi, a tiny liberal party.
Theoretically, it could still be possible for Tsipras to form a left-leaning coalition with PASOK, if New Democracy abstained in a confidence vote rather than opposing it.
Such a scenario seems extremely unlikely, but PASOK leader Venizelos left the door slightly open on Tuesday by renewing calls for all the country's pro-European parties to form a coalition and avoid a second round of elections.
"The Greek people asked for two things: For Greece to stay safely in Europe and the euro and at the same time to seek the best possible change in (bailout) terms so that citizens and growth can be helped," Venizelos said.
If Tsipras fails, the president will give Venizelos, whose party was the biggest loser in the election, the last chance to try to form a government. If he should fail, new elections loom.
ELIAMEP's Couloumbis said many Greeks may still be hoping Europe will bail them out and keep them in the euro zone, even if they reject the austerity demanded by the EU and IMF.
"Many here think Europe cannot afford to let Greece go down that path - that all we have to do is tell them we'll jump from the 10th floor and they will have a safety net for us," he said. "I say: 'Beware, you may hit the ground and break into many pieces.'"