Greek opposition leaders weigh coalition despite crises, poll pressure

By George Georgiopoulos and David Stamp
A member of the Greek Presidential guard walks next to a stray dog in front of the parliament building in Athens, Greece, August 22, 2015. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

By George Georgiopoulos and David Stamp

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek opposition politicians embarked on Saturday on the laborious and apparently futile exercise of trying to form a new government, oblivious to pressure for rapid elections so the nation can start tackling an array of crises.

The two biggest opposition parties, one of the centre-right and the other of the far left, queued up to exercise their constitutional right to spend three days negotiating a new coalition, even though their efforts are almost certain to fail.

When leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned on Thursday, he had in mind a quick election next month when he hoped to return to power, strengthened by a mandate to implement the new bailout programme he negotiated to save Greece from financial collapse.

But the conservative New Democracy and the anti-bailout Popular Unity - founded only on Friday after splitting from Tsipras's Syriza party - do not share his sense of urgency.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the small PASOK socialist party, reminded fellow opposition leaders that Greece's future in the euro zone was far from secure, even though funds began flowing from the new 86 billion euro ($98 billion) bailout on Thursday.

"It is obvious that ... this parliament cannot form a new government. Therefore, any delay can have destructive consequences for the country because, as I have said many times, Grexit remains in our backyard," she told reporters after meeting conservative New Democracy leader Evangelos Meimarakis.

Meimarakis later met leftist Popular Unity chief Panagiotis Lafazanis, his ideological polar opposite. The two are also split over the bailout, with Meimarakis backing the deal which this week averted a debt default and Lafazanis saying "we will either finish off the bailouts or the bailouts will finish off Greece".

Their talks went nowhere. "Our differences with New Democracy are unbridgeable, chaotic," Lafazanis said after the meeting. "There is absolutely no ground for cooperation with any of the parties that have voted in favour of bailouts."

In saying so, he ruled out dealing with five parties: Syriza, its junior partner in the outgoing coalition and three opposition parties including New Democracy and PASOK.

Together, they comfortably approved the bailout bill last week despite the rebellion of Syriza lawmakers led by Lafazanis.

Nevertheless, Lafazanis insisted he would use his three days to try to build an anti-bailout coalition. This narrows his possible partners to the communists and Golden Dawn, an ultra-right group shunned by all the other parties.

This unlikely combination would muster just 57 votes in the 300 seat parliament, under the current party standings.

Tsipras still leads by far the biggest party in parliament - Syriza had 149 seats before the 25 anti-bailout rebels under Lafazanis walked out - and he has yet to meet any opposition leader. In any case, he is highly unlikely to want a coalition deal as he pursues his ambition of governing alone, quite apart from the fact Meimarakis has called him a "bit of a fibber".


Meanwhile pressure is growing at home and abroad for urgent action during what Tsipras has called a crisis within a crisis. On top of implementing the bailout programme and rescuing the banks, Greece is struggling with a humanitarian crisis.

Many thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war and other migrants are massed on Greek islands, having crossed in small boats from Turkey. Others are trapped on the northern border with Macedonia in filthy and squalid conditions, with the Greek government saying it has no money to help them.

"Implementing the accord reached with the lenders, recapitalising the banks and the migrant crisis are burning issues that cannot wait, not even one month," said the conservative Kathimerini newspaper.

In October Greece has to pass a review by the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund of how it is implementing promises of yet more austerity and economic reforms. Failure could mean a halt to funding, threatening a financial collapse and possible exit from the euro that was averted only narrowly when Tsipras caved into the creditors' demands.

Europe appears apprehensive about the prospect of political paralysis.

Tsipras spoke to French President Francois Hollande by telephone on Friday. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chairs meetings of euro zone finance ministers, urged Greece to hold elections as soon as possible to avoid delays in implementing the bailout.

If none of the three biggest parties - Syriza, New Democracy and Popular Unity - can form a coalition, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos could call elections as early as the middle of next week, to be held within 30 days.

(writing by David Stamp; Editing by Gareth Jones and Raissa Kasolowsky)