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Parties maneuver in Greece as coalition talks enter 3rd day

Talks on forming a new conservative-led government after the weekend’s parliamentary elections in Greece were extended an extra day Tuesday as the likely coalition partners jockeyed for position, possibly to avoid taking the blame if the Greek economy continues to falter under a European-mandated austerity program.

Voters on Sunday gave the center-right New Democracy party a narrow victory over the anti-bailout Syriza leftists, but it fell far short of a parliamentary majority. This forced party leader Antonis Samaras to seek support from two former rivals, the once-mighty Socialist PASOK party and the smaller Democratic Left.

PASOK’s leader, Evangelos Venizelos, said Tuesday that he didn’t want his party, which finished third in the balloting, to name lawmakers or party notables to any high-profile Cabinet positions. Instead he emphasized the importance of a role in a committee renegotiating terms of the bailout and in setting future government policy.

As one of its conditions for joining the government, the Democratic Left, headed by former Communist Fotis Kouvelis, demanded that Greece disengage from the terms of the bailout over the next five years, although it’s unclear how the near-bankrupt Greek state would ever get on its feet if that’s implemented.

News agencies reported that European Union officials were holding out the prospect of renegotiating the terms of Greece’s repayment of its enormous loans, which Greek leaders have said is necessary due to falling tax revenue, a continually shrinking economy and 22.6 percent unemployment. The “Troika” – representatives of the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund who negotiated the two bailouts – is expected to send a delegation to Athens as soon as a government is formed.

Their weak election showing helps explain the two possible coalition partners’ wariness toward New Democracy, which won 29.7 percent of the vote. Syriza captured 26.9 percent – an enormous gain from its once-marginal status – while the once dominant PASOK won just 12.3 percent. The Democratic Left finished sixth, with 6.2 percent. It’s thanks only to a feature of Greek election law, which gives a 50-seat bonus to the first-place finisher, that New Democracy can lead a majority government.

Party leaders in the future coalition said a government was almost sure to be announced by Wednesday, but it may prove a shaky one. Although New Democracy (with 129 seats), PASOK (33) and the Democratic Left (17) together have more than enough seats to form a majority in the 300-seat chamber, Syriza, with 71 seats, has pledged to oppose any continuation of the austerity program.

The strong misgivings of the Greek public, which propelled Syriza to its second-place finish, aren’t the only factor likely to weaken the new coalition even before it’s formed. Samaras, 61, a veteran conservative politician who was educated at Amherst and Harvard, has alienated practically every part of the Greek political spectrum over the past two decades with policy shifts that seemed intended to promote his own prospects ahead of national goals.

In 2010 Samaras denounced PASOK’s agreement to a first European bailout and fought it in the Parliament, only to reverse his position at the end of 2011, when he joined PASOK in supporting the second bailout.

After a dismal showing in the first round of parliamentary elections May 6 – in which New Democracy just edged out Syriza – Samaras mounted an all-out drive to polarize the debate in order to win the second round. He labeled the election a vote on whether Greece should stay in the euro currency zone or revert to its former currency, the drachma – falsely casting Syriza as a party intent on leaving the euro.

When Samaras invited Syriza to join in an all-party government of national salvation after Sunday’s results were in, Syriza’s firebrand leader, 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras, didn’t give it a second thought but rebuffed him publicly.

Syriza’s gains in the election – it had sizable pluralities in Crete, in the ring of Athens’ outer suburbs and in a number of islands – were largely at PASOK’s expense, and Venizelos, a former deputy prime minister, now faces the challenge of preventing his party from becoming marginalized.

The next Parliament could be a lively one. The Democratic Left’s demands for joining the coalition include the scrapping of legal immunity for former ministers and members of Parliament, taxing the assets of the Greek Orthodox Church and giving investigators access to the property records of parliamentarians and senior civil servants, moves that could bring to light scandals involving New Democracy and PASOK party stalwarts.

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