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Greek pro-bailout parties claim knife-edge elections

The eurozone breathes a sigh of relief.

Image: Petros Giannakouris/AP/Press Association Images

GREECE’S TWO MAIN pro-bailout parties have won enough votes to form a government in a cliffhanger election, first estimates showed, easing fears the stricken economy will crash out of the euro.

The conservative New Democracy party is seen as the winner with 29.5 per cent of the vote, which would give it 128 seats in the 300-seat parliament because of a 50-seat boost given to the victor under the Greek electoral system.

“We are the first party. The time has come to form a government of national unity to exit the crisis,” said Dora Bakoyannis, a top New Democracy official.

Coalition talks are now expected to start tomorrow with the most likely ally being the socialist PASOK party which appears to have won 33 seats.

Exit polls had shown a dead heat between New Democracy and Syriza which could have left Greece in the same political gridlock between bickering parties which followed elections last month and triggered this vote just six weeks later.

The anti-austerity radical leftist Syriza party came second after galvanising widespread anger against the cuts imposed by an unpopular multi-billion bailout deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Greece has been forced to seek bailouts twice, first for €110 billion  in 2010 and then for €130 billion this year plus a €107 billion private debt write-off.

There may be some room for compromise on the bailout conditions, such as extending a crucial deficit-cutting deadline to 2016 from 2014.

Just as the first results filtered through, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin was ready to discuss giving Greece more time.

“There can’t be substantial changes in the engagements” undertaken by Greece in the bailout deal. “But I can imagine we discuss again a delay” in achieving the targets, he said on Germany’s ARD public television.

Syriza’s firebrand leader Alexis Tsipras had vowed that the bailout deal would be “history” on Monday if he won. After casting his ballot on Sunday, he said Greeks had “conquered fear” and were moving to “a better future.”

Tsipras has accused New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras of misrepresenting the election as a choice between keeping the euro or returning to the drachma.

The 37-year-old has accused Samaras of defending “Merkel’s Europe” — a mocking reference to the German chancellor who is widely contested in Greece.

As he voted in his hometown of Pylos, 61-year-old Samaras said: “Today the Greek people speak. Tomorrow a new era starts for Greece.”

Angela Merkel and other European leaders urged Greeks to vote for lawmakers who will toe the line on the bailout, saying it was “extremely important.”

Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that a victory for the radical left would have “unpredictable consequences” for the eurozone as a whole.

Voters’ opinions

Initial results showed the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has won enough votes to enter parliament on the back of growing anti-immigrant sentiment and concern about security which has accompanied the economic crisis.

“I think that most people are anxious because the future is very dark,” Tonia Katerini, a 54-year-old architect, told AFP after voting for Syriza in an elementary school in the upmarket Kolonaki district in central Athens.

“The situation in the last two years has been very hard for most people so I believe we have to make a big change,” she said.

But Emmanuel Kamkoutis, a 68-year-old pensioner, said he voted for the right because he wanted “a pro-European government and not a communist one.”

“We signed something. We can’t just take it back,” he said, referring to the bailout deal. “We have to try very hard to keep ourselves in the euro.”

Media reaction

Greek newspapers said the vote was the most critical since the end of military rule in 1974.

Germany’s Bild tabloid added to tensions ahead of the vote with an open letter telling Greeks their ATMs had euros only because “we put them there”.

“If the parties who want to be through with austerity and reforms win the election and contravene every agreement, we will stop paying,” it said.

For many Greeks a fine-tuning of the terms of the bailout may not be enough as public anger is rising against the steep pay and pension cuts seen since the crisis first exploded in 2009, setting off a chain reaction across Europe.

Greece is now in its fifth year of recession, prompting many young Greeks to vote with their feet by emigrating, while local media warn the state will run out of cash to pay public-sector salaries and pensions on July 20.

The ballot passed off mostly smoothly one ballot box was burnt in the radical Exarchia district of Athens and two grenades were found outside the offices of private media group Skai TV, which supports the unpopular austerity drive.

-(c) AFP, 2012

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