By NICHOLAS PAPHITIS
Bailout-reliant Greece faces weeks of financial turmoil after voters angry at crippling income cuts punished mainstream politicians, let a far-right extremist group into Parliament and gave no party enough votes to govern alone.
The one certainty coming out of Sunday’s election was that parties backing the draconian international rescue package lost their majority in parliament _ raising the chances of a possible Greek exit from the common euro currency.
The uncertainty weighed on markets across Europe, with the Athens exchange tumbling 7.3 percent in midday trading.
Official results showed conservative New Democracy came first with 18.85 percent and 108 of Parliament’s 300 seats. Party leader Antonis Samaras, who backs Greece’s bailout commitments for austerity but has called for some changes to the bailout plan, will launch coalition-forming talks later in the day.
After receiving the mandate to start negotiations from President Karolos Papoulias, Samaras will have three days to strike a coalition deal. But that could prove impossible because even with the support of the only other clearly pro-bailout party elected, Socialist PASOK, New Democracy would fall two seats short of a governing majority.
If the deadlock does not ease, Greece faces new elections under a caretaker government in mid-June, about the time it has to detail new drastic austerity measures worth (EURO)14.5 billion ($19 billion) for 2013-14.
In June, Athens is also due to receive a (EURO)30 billion ($39.4 billion) installment of its rescue loans from the other countries in the 17-strong eurozone and the International Monetary Fund.
Analyst Vangelis Agapitos said protracted instability would threaten the country’s eurozone membership. Greece’s debt inspectors _ the eurozone, IMF and European Central Bank, collectively known as the troika _ could turn the screws by halting release of the bailout funds until Athens moves forward with its pledged reforms.
Sunday’s big winner was the anti-bailout Radical Left Coalition, or Syriza, whose unprecedented second place with 16.78 percent gives it 52 seats.
Disaffected voters deserted PASOK and New Democracy, the two mainstays of Greek politics, leaving them at their worst level since 1974, when Greece emerged from a seven-year dictatorship. Instead, strong gains were registered by smaller parties, including the extremist Golden Dawn, which rejects the neo-Nazi label and insists it is nationalist and patriotic.
Golden Dawn has been blamed for violent attacks on immigrants and ran on an anti-immigrant platform, vowing to “clean up” Greece and calling for land mines to be planted along the borders. It got 6.97 percent of the vote _ a stunning improvement from 0.29 percent in 2009 _ and won 21 seats.
The election was Greeks’ moment to vent their fury over two years of austerity that Athens has been pushing through to qualify for bailout loans. Incomes, benefits and pensions have been slashed repeatedly and taxes hiked. Unemployment has soared to a record of over 21 percent.
PASOK, which has spent 21 years in government since 1981 and stormed to victory with more than 43 percent in 2009, saw its support slashed to 13.18 percent. It will have just 41 seats, compared to 160 in the last election.
Sunday’s turnout was 65 percent _ a low figure for the country, where voting is officially compulsory, although no sanctions are applied for not casting a ballot. A total of seven parties won representation.
Another four small parties fell just short of the three percent parliamentary entry threshold, getting just over ten percent between them.
Samaras is to meet Papoulias to strike a coalition agreement. He will then meet with the leaders of PASOK and Syriza, as well as the head of a smaller, more moderate left-wing party.
If he fails to form a government, the mandate will go to the second party for another three days, and then to the third party. If no deal can be reached by May 17, the country will hold new elections a month later.
Agapitos said Greeks on Sunday were carried away by their feelings.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said the election results needed to be analyzed calmly.
Both Samaras and PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos indicated any unity government would have to include more than just their two parties.
But in a note that will likely raise alarm among Greece’s creditors, Samaras insisted any coalition should renegotiate the terms of the country’s bailout.
Riding high on his gains, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, aged 38, stuck to his anti-bailout position.
Raf Casert in Brussels contributed