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Greek Coalition Talks Collapsed After 'Madhouse' Fighting

Greece's political leaders smiled before coalition talks fell apart over their feuding

ATHENS – In a scenario that shows just how divided Greece is, political leaders who tried to form a coalition government in the wake of the May 6 stalemated elections were at each other’s throats in diatribe so vicious that the talks collapsed and a frustrated President Karolos Papoulias told them they were done, setting the state for another election June 17.
The details were set out in a report from Reuters, following the minutes of the meeting that fell apart because of the feuds between the politicians over austerity measures demanded by international lenders in return for two bailouts of $325 billion, favored by the once-dominant New Democracy Conservatives and their otherwise bitter ideological rival PASOK Socialists who had been sharing an uneasy hybrid government.
The elections are critical for Greece amid fears that if anti-austerity parties prevail, they will be able to form a government that will try to renegotiate the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions that have led to two years of protests, or even renege on the deal with the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) putting up the monies. The Troika has warned any attempt by the next government to tinker with reforms could lead to the money pipeline being shut off.
If the failed coalition talks are any measure, it could be impossible for the political parties to find a middle ground. The second-place finisher in the first election, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) is vehemently against austerity, although its leader, Alexis Tsipras, said he wants to keep Greece in the Eurozone of the 17 countries using the euro as a currency. If Greece is forced out, many analysts have predicted doomsday for Greece, with chaos and anarchy. “It was a complete madhouse,” a source at PASOK told Reuters after their new leader, Evangelos Venizelos, returned from the May 17 showdown. “The discussion was unbelievable.”
The report said that when New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, 60, deserted a technocrat government to force May 6 elections, he was confident of a mandate for the austerity measures he had opposed, then supported, and now said he opposes again, but made a critical miscalculation over how angry Greeks were. They gave 68 percent of the vote to five anti-austerity parties, and while New Democracy finished first, it had only 18.8 percent of the vote and PASOK, which got 44 percent when it won the 2009 elections, had slid to third and only 13.2 percent under Venizelos, the former finance minister who doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor while letting tax evaders escape.
The elections were a contradiction though, as some 80 percent of Greeks in separate polls said that while they don’t want any more austerity, they want Greece to stay in the Eurozone. The Troika said that can’t happen without austerity, showing how difficult the puzzle is. “Pythagoras didn’t manage to square the circle and god knows these guys don’t know how to either,” one EU diplomat in Brussels told Reuters, echoing widespread sentiment in European capitals, adding, “The Greeks seem to have no understanding of the seriousness of their predicament and that is a great source of frustration. There’s a breaking point and I think we’re getting close to it.”
In nine days of talks, rivals Venizelos, 54, and Samaras, denied a majority even if they could bury their own differences, rained pressure on Tsipras and his SYRIZA party. Reuters said that Tsipras seemed to thrive in the limelight, cultivating a relaxed demeanor, an easy walk, smiling and joking, the man who would square the circle, while Samaras, apparently frustrated at his failures, tried to bait his rival. As the party leaders sat around a table, Papoulias read out a letter describing the dire state of the economy and banking system. Samaras and Venizelos outlined the dangers a second round of elections would bring as people hived off their funds for fear of the worst. Tsipras piped in, “So the danger of the banking system collapsing was discovered on May 7? Already, 73.5 billion euros have left the country. The people’s verdict is not responsible for this.”
Venizelos snapped back. “If SYRIZA chooses to go to elections because its popularity is up and it expects to come first in the election, it must bear the responsibility for what will follow,” notes of the meeting quoted him as saying “Unanimity through blackmail has never been a basic ingredient of democracy.”
Tsipras, a former communist student activist, put the blame for Greece’s plight squarely on his rivals, who have been charged with creating the crisis by packing public payrolls with hundreds of thousands of unneeded workers in return for votes. The meeting degenerated rapidly to the point where Samaras blasted Panos Kammenos, another opponent of the austerity plan and a former New Democracy Member of Parliament he had ejected for doing so. “I see you don’t want to discuss any proposals at all,” official notes quoted Kammenos as saying. “All you want is to be prime minister. You want the chair.” As tempers frayed, the goading escalated.
Venizelos, close to snapping himself, had to be reminded by Tsipras, “Don’t get upset,” although they soon found themselves tangling too. Samaras emerged as the most testy, and a party source told Reuters that, “The only thing holding back Samaras was that minutes were being kept,” and that the discussion would become public.
With New Democracy and SYRIZA in a virtual tie in recent polls, the party leaders are looking for every edge they can get. PASOK sources said there had been a moment during initial inter-party talks when some saw a glimmer of hope it could win over a small party to create a majority government together with New Democracy by getting the support of the seventh-place finisher, and the last party to get enough votes to get into Parliament, the Democratic Left of Fotis Kouvelis. But Tsipras immediately warned him that he would be a traitor to the left if he joined a New Democracy-PASOK coalition.
“The phones were ringing off the hook,” one Democratic Left party aide said. “Supporters from all over Greece were calling to tell us not to join the bailout forces.” The party, split down the middle, recoiled from any coalition deal, though Tsipras’s scorn for even considering the plan had its effect on Kouvelis. “He is slandering us and this is a disgrace,” Kouvelis was quoted by an aide as telling his team.
Tsipras and Venizelos, accusing each other of putting political ambition above national interests, also had tense exchanges, the minutes showed. “Have we come to the stage of a TV debate before the President? I’m very sorry,” said Tsipras. “You may be as sorry as you like,” Venizelos replied. “I’m more sorry for what the country is going through.”
Papoulias, 82, asked how talks were going, would raise his hands and shake his head in dismay. In winding up the final meeting, Papoulias seemed keenly aware of the broader implications of the sometimes chaotic scenes he had witnessed. “It is a great misfortune that we did not manage to achieve something,” he said. “We all bear significant responsibility, I would say historic responsibility,” he added. Then he said, “Gentlemen, we are finished.”

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