ATHENS Greece's conservatives have regained an opinion poll lead that would allow the formation of a pro-bailout government committed to keeping the country in the euro zone, a batch of new surveys showed on Saturday.
Greece was forced to call repeat elections for June 17 after a May 6 vote left parliament divided evenly between groups of parties that support and oppose the austerity conditions attached to a 130 billion euro bailout agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in March.
Polls up to Saturday had showed pro- and anti-bailout parties running neck-and-neck ahead of the vote which could determine the country's future in the single currency.
Five polls published in the weekend press showed the conservative New Democracy party, which supports the bailout, with a lead of between 0.5 and 5.7 points over the anti-bailout leftist SYRIZA party - though analysts said the race was still too close to call.
SYRIZA has said it would ditch the country's bailout deal that has led to record unemployment and severe wage cuts.
But Germany and other lenders have said they would cut the country's funding if it took such a step. That would lead to bankruptcy and possibly force Greece to leave the euro.
New Democracy would get between 25.6 percent and 27.7 percent of the vote if the election was held today, according to the polls by Eleftheros Typos/Pulse, Proto Thema/Alco, Real News/MRB, To Vima/Kapa and Ethnos/MARC. SYRIZA's support was between 20.1 and 26 percent.
According to the Pulse and MARC polls, New Democracy and the next-biggest pro-bailout party, the socialist PASOK, would together win a parliamentary majority of between 11 and 16 seats in the country's 300-seat parliament.
"NO BAILOUT, NO FUEL"
The new figures were released after conservative leader Antonis Samaras launched an attack on SYRIZA, accusing his rival of flirting with disaster by promising voters Greece could ditch the bailout without risking an exit from the euro.
"If Greece unilaterally rejects the bailout deal it will be isolated for years ... It will have no food, no drugs, no fuel. It will have to live with permanent power cuts," Samaras told party faithful in a rally.
Responding to Samaras, SYRIZA reiterated its opposition to the bailout. "It (the bailout) would mean new wage and pension cuts, new public sector firings, soaring unemployment and shuttered shops," the party said in a statement.
SYRIZA says it wants Greece to keep the euro but drop the austerity policies associated with the country's bailout - a position shared by most Greeks according to one of the polls.
Sixty-five percent of respondents in the Ethnos/MARC survey said that the country should "negotiate hard" to revise the bailout's terms, while 54 percent believed that there was no way Athens could leave the euro. A total of 82 percent said the country should keep the single currency.
A string of international officials kept up the pressure on Athens on Saturday to stick to the terms of the bailout, saying patience was running out.
"We're not willing to pour money into a bottomless pit," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde said Greeks had to take responsibility for their fate, adding that deprived children in Africa needed more help than people in Greece.
"I think they (the Greeks) should help themselves collectively ... by all paying their tax," she was quoted as saying in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Lagarde's statements provoked dozens of critical comments by Greeks on her Facebook page. "Have you ever considered that we've simply ran out of cash?" one wrote.
The IMF chief responded on Facebook: "As I have said many times before, I am very sympathetic to the Greek people and the challenges they are facing ... An important part of this effort is that everyone should carry their fair share of the burden."
Analysts said New Democracy's lead was precarious. "These polls show that people got scared from SYRIZA's lead in previous surveys," said political analyst John Loulis.
"This is still a very tight race. New Democracy has a small advantage but whoever called them favorites would be dead wrong," he added.
SYRIZA, led by its charismatic 37-year old leader Alexis Tsipras, is doing particularly well among the young who are particularly hit by unemployment, pollster Pulse said.
New Democracy, by contrast, had a big lead among the over-60s, Pulse said.
In a bid to woo anti-bailout voters, conservative leader Samaras said on Saturday Greece should be given more time to comply with a bailout term to generate about 11.5 billion euros in savings over the next two years.
"All new spending cuts ... should take place over four years, not two," he was quoted as saying by Real News.
Greece's bailout deal allows for a possible relaxation of the country's bailout targets if its recession worsens.
Greece's new government will have to act fast. Without new bailout funds, Athens may run out of cash by end of June, newspaper To Vima reported, citing a memo compiled by former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos on May 11.
"From June 20, the government's available cash will cross negative territory to the tune of 1 billion euros," the document said, confirming earlier reports by finance ministry officials that Greece might run out cash by the end of June.
(With additional reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)