Defiant Greeks have no regret for anti-austerity vote
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks who plunged their country into turmoil by voting overwhelmingly on Sunday to reject parties behind an EU/IMF bailout say they are ready to do it all over again if, as seems all but certain, the election is rerun next month.
The two parties that dominated Greece for decades and negotiated its 130 billion euro bailout were reduced to just 32 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, with the rest of Greeks picking fringe parties that all oppose the bailout.
Politicians show virtually no sign of being able to cobble together a government, which means a new election is likely to be held in 3-4 weeks.
The political disarray has fuelled speculation Greece could be ejected from Europe's single currency, even though polls show most Greeks want to keep the euro.
"I have no regrets. I feel vindicated because the two pro-bailout parties have been unfair with us for so many years," said 70-year old Petros Chiotopoulos, who owns a small bus rental company and cast his ballot for the conservative splinter party Independent Greeks.
The comments were echoed by dozens of Greeks on the streets of Athens, who said they were unrepentant about punishing a ruling establishment that presided over five years of recession, surging unemployment, falling wages and rampant corruption.
They said they want to make sure their message is heard at home and in Europe: they want to stay in the euro but can't take any more pain.
The conservative New Democracy and Socialist PASOK have alternated ruling Greece since the fall of the military junta in 1974. Last year, with bankruptcy just weeks away, they formed a coalition and jointly negotiated the 130 billion EU/IMF bailout.
EU leaders have made clear since Sunday that Greece must stick to the reforms agreed in return for the bailout - including firing public sector workers, slashing pay and raising taxes - to keep getting aid and stay in the euro.
Greeks say they want a rescue plan that would not hurt the poorest and middle class as much.
"We want to stay in the euro. We want to be on an equal footing with other people and not just slaves of some countries," said public sector worker Dimitris Nasis, 62, who voted for a small leftist party.
Nasis pinned his hopes on Francois Hollande, who won the French presidential election on Sunday on a pro-growth ticket and a promise to renegotiate an EU fiscal pact.
But Hollande's margin of maneuver will be limited by the need to compromise with euro zone paymaster Germany, which insists on strict fiscal policies.
Greece's two mainstream parties are closer to power than their 32 percent share of the vote might suggest, and could be gambling that they can win a mandate in a new election.
Under rules designed to make it easier to form a government, New Democracy was given a bonus of 50 extra seats in the 300-seat parliament for placing first. Along with PASOK, it emerged just two seats short of the 151 needed to form a government.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras failed when given the first opportunity to form a coalition. Alexis Tsipras, a radical leftist, has now been given until Thursday to form a government, but is seen as having virtually no chance after he demanded any coalition partners agree to tear up the bailout accord.
If Tsipras fails as expected, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos would also have a chance, but it is hard to see how he can succeed where Samaras failed, meaning a new election would probably be announced next week.
Samaras may be reckoning that some of the voters who cast protest votes on Sunday will hold their noses and back him in a repeat election, so that he can form a government at last.
Theoharis Konstantinou, 32, a lawyer who voted for one of the two pro-bailout parties, said he hoped those who cast protest votes would change their minds.
"Everybody (in Europe) is looking at our mess. I hope people realize what they did and vote more responsibly next time."
Pollsters said the outcome of a repeat election would be hard to predict, not least because - according to exit polls - 6 out of 10 people voted differently than in the previous election, when 77 percent backed New Democracy or PASOK.
Many Greeks said they wanted to see a swift coalition and blamed the politicians for causing chaos by stalling.
"The leaders should cooperate, put things in order. It's their fault anyway, they brought us here," said Christie Papanikolaou, 50, owner of a clothing shop. She voted for New Democracy and would do the same in a new poll, although she said she understood those who cast ballots for fringe parties.
Eleni Papadopoulou, an unemployed 25-year-old, said she had voted for a small party and did not regret it, "although I am scared now".
"I wish they would have formed a coalition government by now because we want stability."
Among the only voters who expressed regret were some of those who cast ballots for extreme-right Golden Dawn, out of concern for illegal immigration and rising crime.
Many reacted with shock after the fringe nationalist party scored 7 percent in the election and media published photos showing a party member posing with knives and bullets.
"I just wanted them to get into parliament but not to be so big. I just wanted them in to rock the system," said a clothing shop clerk who identified herself as Vaia, 30.
(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Writing by Ingrid Melander)