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Greek coalition government talks in final stretch; PASOK leader meets head of New Democracy
ATHENS, Greece (AP) ' Former finance minister and socialist party head Evangelos Venizelos met Friday with election winner Antonis Samaras, the leader of the conservative party, in a last ditch effort to form a coalition government in the crisis-struck country.
Both leaders, who did not make statements immediately after their meeting, know that a failure to agree a deal could see Greece hold fresh elections next month that could put the country's membership of the euro at risk.
Though suffering a big loss in support, New Democracy won the most votes in weekend elections but without enough of a majority to form a government. Venizelos' PASOK party was hammered by furious voters, who blame it for its handling of the financial crisis. PASOK's third place was its worst electoral showing in nearly 40 years.
Even if they agree, however, they do not hold enough seats in Parliament combined to form a government unless another party joins them. Election runner-up Alexis Tsipras, whose Radical Left Coalition made massive gains to come in second in Sunday's vote, has insisted he cannot participate in any government that wants to continue with the harsh austerity that is a condition for Greece's international bailout.
The country has been dependent since May 2010 on billions of euros of rescue loans from other European Union countries that use the euro and the International Monetary Fund. In return for the funds that are keeping Greece functioning, Athens has imposed repeated rounds of spending cuts and tax hikes, leaving the country mired in the fifth year of recession, and the jobless rate increasing by hundreds of people each day.
Both Samaras and Venizelos say Tsipras' demands that terms of the bailout agreement be canceled would lead to disaster, with Greece being forced out of the euro. Tsipras, whose party won 52 seats in the 300-member Parliament, insists European leaders could be persuaded to see that the formula of the bailout is not working, and is ruining the country's chances of recovery.
There was a glimmer of hope for a coalition deal Thursday night, after Venizelos met with Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of a smaller left-wing party whose 19 seats in the 300-member parliament would be more than enough to form a government if added to New Democracy's 108 seats and PASOK's 41.
Venizelos said he and Kouvelis were "very, very close in our views."
However, Kouvelis has insisted he wants a broad coalition that would include more parties. He also risks being branded as a left-wing traitor if he helps the pro-austerity parties to govern without Tsipras' party.
Some party leaders might be inclined to bet on new elections, hoping to gain a stronger position. An opinion poll published late Thursday indicated that Tsipras' party would come first with nearly 28 percent of the vote in a new election ' up from 16.8 percent ' winning 128 seats.
The Marc survey for private Alpha TV gave New Democracy 20.3 percent and 57 seats, and showed the extremist right-wing Golden Dawn declining to 5.7 percent, with 16 seats.
The May 8-9 nationwide survey was the first published after Sunday's vote. It gave no margin of error.