ATHENS Greeks strongly support their new technocrat prime minister Lucas Papademos and his national unity government, according to opinion polls on Saturday that also indicated the country may continue with coalition rule after he steps down next year.
Papademos, a former central banker, has called on the nation to rally behind his coalition as it sets about securing a bailout deal with the euro zone, which demands austerity measures likely to be highly unpopular with Greeks.
A survey by pollsters MRB showed he has support, at least for now, from Greeks appalled by bickering among party politicians after the previous Socialist government collapsed.
The poll also signaled that no party might win a majority when the interim coalition finishes its work and early elections are held, opening the possibility of some kind of continued coalition government.
The survey, published in the newspaper Realnews, found that 68 percent of Greeks believed a unity coalition was the government best suited to solve the country's huge problems with debt, budget deficits and economic competitiveness.
However, not everyone was positive. "I am not relieved at all that there's a new government," said Eleni Papageorgiou, a 53-year-old housewife. "I know only one thing, no matter what government is up there, things will get worse for me rather than better," she told Reuters.
PHONE CALL FROM THE EU
Papademos needs the people's support. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a teleconference with him on Saturday -- just 24 hours after his cabinet was sworn in -- urging him to respect and carry out all Greece's reform commitments in full, the French government said.
In separate phone calls, Papademos also talked on Saturday with ECB chief Mario Draghi, IMF Director Christine Lagarde, Eurogroup head Jean-Claude Juncker, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
Papademos has to win parliamentary approval for the 130 billion euro bailout, Greece's second in as many years, even to win the latest installment of EU/IMF funding from last year's original rescue package. Athens needs those 8 billion euros to avoid defaulting when big debt repayments come due next month.
Merkel and Sarkozy reminded Papademos, who was European Central Bank vice president until last year, that payment of this tranche depended on Greece delivering on its promises.
"The payment of the next tranche of aid cannot happen unless there is a decisive step in this direction," the Elysee Palace said in a statement.
Officials from the "troika" of the EU, the IMF and the ECB will start arriving in Athens early next week to speak with the new government.
Altogether 75 percent backed Papademos, according to the MRB poll which was taken on November 10, when he was named as prime minister, and on November 11, when his cabinet was sworn in.
Another poll by Kappa Research for newspaper To Vima found 73 percent believe appointing Papademos was the right decision, while 78 percent thought the coalition was a positive move.
As Bank of Greece chief, Papademos presided over the country's entry into the euro zone in 2002. If Greece defaults, he or his successor risk presiding over its exit.
The unity government will rule only until next year, although Papademos has refused to be bound by a deal between the two main parties that elections will be held on February 19 should he need more time to implement his program.
SINGLE PARTY RULE?
The departure of Papademos may not mark a return to single party rule. According to the MRB poll, conservative party New Democracy would win 33.1 percent of the vote if an election were held today, but it would fall short of a parliamentary majority.
The socialist party PASOK, which ruled alone for the last two years under previous prime minister George Papandreou, would take just 18.1 percent.
Papademos has said unemployment, which has hit a record 18.4 percent, was a major challenge. But he must also start chipping away at a debt load of more than 30,000 euros (41,232) for each of Greece's 10.8 million people which, at 162 percent of annual output, is almost double the EU average.
The EU, wary of broken promises from Athens, has demanded that Greek leaders give written undertakings that they will meet their obligations under the bailout deal.
However, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras refused to say explicitly that he would sign the undertaking. "I am bound by what I have pledged," he said in an interview with Realnews, referring to spoken promises he has already made.
Samaras is not part of the Papademos government, although New Democracy members have taken ministries along with PASOK, while the far-right LAOS party also has one minister.
However, Greece's IMF envoy Panagiotis Roumeliotis said the EU wanted signed assurances from Samaras, Papandreou -- who still leads PASOK -- Papademos, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos and central bank governor George Provopoulos.
Roumeliotis told Kathimerini newspaper he did not expect any problems with this.
Samaras long opposed the bailout, saying spending and job cuts plus tax rises sought by the EU and IMF were keeping Greece stuck in its fourth year of recession. He later backed down.
"We won't block anything that needs to be done to banish the specter of bankruptcy," Samaras told Realnews. However, he added: "We will reserve the right to seek changes to anything that needs to change because it doesn't work."
(Writing by Michael Winfrey and David Stamp; Editing by Andrew Heavens)