A coalition of also-ran Communists held the balance of political power here Monday after Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and Conservative challengers fought to a no-win election standoff.
In the fluid aftermath of Sunday's inconclusive national vote, the oft-attacked, ever-defiant Papandreou will remain in office as a caretaker prime minister.
Denied a parliamentary majority at the polls, Conservatives and Socialists alike rushed to woo a small and largely Stalinist left that, running a poor third, nevertheless has the most reason to be happiest with the election results.
For the other parties, an election that promised definition instead solved nothing. Worse, it brought new problems, including the prospect of a prolonged power vacuum and yet another sapping election in the not-too-distant future.
Monday was a painful morning-after for a disillusioned Greece. In an Athens barber shop, Paul Panayotoy, dull of eye and blunt of passion, fingered his scissors with distraction as he waved the post-election permutations.
'What a Mess!'
"Everything is possible now. What a mess!" he murmured with a complicated sigh that sounded more contorted Balkan than airy Mediterranean.
The final returns from Sunday's vote gave Conservative Constantine Mitsotakis' New Democracy Party 44.3% of the vote and 144 seats in the 300-member Parliament--seven short of the majority he needed to oust Papandreou.
Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement, PASOK, got 39.1% and 125 seats in falling short of the prime minister's quest for a third four-year term with a majority in Parliament.
The Communist coalition won 13% and 29 seats, while the remaining two seats went to a conservative splinter party and a Muslim ethnic Turk in northern Greece.
Amid the overture to prolong the backstage maneuvering, the no-majority result set in motion a constitutional mechanism for government renewal--but without any clue to its outcome.
Papandreou, who has enjoyed a parliamentary majority for all of his eight years in power, submitted his pro forma resignation Monday to President Christos Sartzetakis in the absence of a new majority.
The president, whose post is ceremonial, asked Papandreou to remain as caretaker. Today he will ask Mitsotakis, as leader of the party that finished first, to try to form a new government.
Meeting with reporters here Monday afternoon, a dead-pan but obviously disappointed Mitsotakis blamed Papandreou for "an orgy of abuse" and demagoguery in organizing the elections poorly and in ways to benefit his own party.
Although Mitsotakis claimed he had won "a clear victory," he also conceded that there was no chance that New Democracy could form a government alone. Therefore, he said, he was proposing a short-term, interim accord with the Communists.
A Hatfield-McCoy government spawned of such alliance would be limited to two ends, Mitsotakis said: To punish those responsible for massive financial scandals during the Papandreou years and to prepare Greece for new elections.
A Communist 'No Thanks'
Basking in the sudden attention, Charilaos Florakis, president of both the hard-line Greek Communist Party and of the Communist election coalition, said "no thanks" to a quick fix Monday night.
Florakis told Greek reporters that although the returns showed the need for a coalition government, the Communists are looking for more than an interim agreement of the sort that Mitsotakis had proposed.
Greek political analysts thought it unlikely that the Communists would link up on any terms with their historic enemies, even to torpedo a common foe as hated as Papandreou.
Political memories tend to be both long and bitter in a country where the Communists, defeated in a civil war that ended in 1949, were proscribed from public life until 1974.
Then too, the coalition that won the broker's role Sunday is itself a shotgun marriage of Stalinists and Eurocommunists. The hard-liners dominate by a margin of about 12 to 1 and will have 26 of the coalition's 29 seats in the new Parliament.
Under Greek law, if Mitsotakis is unable to form a government, then Papandreou gets the call to try. That, analysts say, means another would-be suitor for the Communists. Together, PASOK and the coalition won 154 seats.
During the campaign, the Communists were as shrill as New Democracy in denouncing the scandals that reached high into PASOK and the Papandreou government. Both parties want the guilty punished, a slender common thread that Mitsotakis sought without success to spin into alliance Monday.
Still, there is more common philosophical ground between Papandreou's Socialists and the Communists than between New Democracy and either of the other two.
Florakis said early in the campaign that the Communists would ally with the devil himself before linking with Papandreou, but his fervor diminished as election day approached.
Now, the conventional wisdom holds, the Communists might be willing to deal with PASOK if it did not also mean dealing with Papandreou. The flip side of that, though, is that without Papandreou there isn't much PASOK.
GREECE'S NEW 'TALL MAN' Constantine Mitsotakis . . . born in 1918 in Crete . . . lifelong politician . . . became president of the conservative New Democracy Party in 1984 . . . has served in 11 parliaments since 1948 . . . was foreign minister before Andreas Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement came to power in 1981 . . . nicknamed O Psilos , the "tall man," by his supporters . . . has been a rival of Papandreou since he defected from the party run by Papandreou's father in 1965 . . . went into exile when Greek armed forces seized power in 1967 and returned when democratic government was restored in Athens in 1974 . . . advocates a free-market economy . . . pledges to streamline bureaucracy, cut double-digit inflation rate and clean up governmental scandals . . . has said he considers NATO membership important . . . also sees presence of four major U.S. military bases and 20 smaller installations as vital to Greece's defense . . . graduate in law and economics from University of Athens . . . decorated by British for role as Resistance fighter against German forces occupying Crete in World War II . . . also speaks German, English, French.
SOURCE: Times Wire Services