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Greek Voters Deal Main Parties Serious Blow


One country that's very familiar with economic problems, Greece, held a parliamentary vote yesterday, and austerity wary voters dealt a devastating blow to both main establishment parties.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties failed even to scrape together the necessary minimum to continue their co-governing coalition.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Greek voters sent a strong message to their country's international creditors - the EU, ECB and IMF - rejecting their strict austerity policies, and the results overturned nearly half a century of two-party dominance. The party that came in first, the conservative New Democracy, won less than 20 percent of the votes cast. The collapse of the socialist PASOK Party was even starker. It dropped from more than 43 percent in the 2009 elections to just 13.2 percent. Greek voters broke with decades of strict party loyalties, favoring small fringe parties from the extreme right to the extreme left that vehemently reject the bailout terms. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who hoped to govern alone, got the message.

ANTONIS SAMARAS: (Through translator) We are ready to take the responsibility to form a new government of national salvation with two aims: for Greece to stay in the eurozone and to amend the terms of the loan agreements, to promote economic growth and relief for Greek society.

POGGIOLI: Evangelos Venizelos, whose PASOK party had spent 21 years in government since 1981, conceded it had been a particularly painful day. He also called for a national unity government.

EVANGELOS VENIZELOS: (Through translator) A coalition of the old two-party system would not have sufficient legitimacy or a sufficient domestic and international credibility. God of Greece, help us.

POGGIOLI: The Greek economy is in free-fall. The jobless rate is 21 percent, and 20 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. The most worrisome sign of angry, anti-austerity sentiment was the success of the extreme rightwing, anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party, whose members use the Nazi salute. The party soared from less than 1 percent three years ago to close to 7 percent. Supporters wearing black T-shirts with a logo similar to the swastika celebrated through the night, brandishing blazing torches in the streets of Athens. Party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos was visibly triumphant.

NIKOLAOS MICHALOLIAKOS: (Through translator) We will continue to combat against the dictatorship of the bailout, both in the parliament and in the streets.

POGGIOLI: The most humiliating blow to the entrenched political system was dealt by SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, which came in a close second to New Democracy and ahead of the socialists with close to 17 percent. SYRIZA's young leader, Alexis Tsipras, campaigned on the slogan that the loan agreement terms are barbaric, and we are sending a message to Europe. He hailed the results as a political upheaval and a peaceful revolution.

ALEXIS TSIPRAS: (Through translator) The people who rewarded our proposal to form a leftist coalition that will cancel loan agreements and overturn the course of our people toward misery.

POGGIOLI: With seven parties entering parliament, Greece faces a period of political uncertainty. The fraying of party loyalties was so deep, that six out of 10 voters switched from previous allegiances. Taxi driver Ziloris Naofitos(ph) and his family are examples of the fragmented vote.

ZILORIS NAOFITOS: (Through translator) My family has always voted New Democracy. But this time, my daughter and my son-in-law chose the Communist Party, my son SYRIZA, the radical left, my wife, a right-wing anti-bailout party, and I voted for Golden Dawn.

POGGIOLI: Greeks woke up today without a clear winner. The frontrunner, New Democracy, will be given three days to try to form a government. Time is of the essence, because next month, Greece has obliged to start slashing another 15-and-a-half billion dollars from the state budget, a task that goes against the popular will. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.