His unsuccessful bid came just a day after voters, crippled by several years of unrelenting austerity measures, punished mainstream parties in national elections and left the country with no outright winner in the most decisive electoral race in decades.
Samaras had three days to form an alliance after his New Democracy party captured 18.8% of the votes, the biggest chunk of support from the highly fragmented electorate. But just six hours after the country’s president authorized him to do so, the 61-year-old economist gave up his bid when rival party leaders refused to team up with him -- and his policies of fiscal discipline.
“I tried to form a coalition government with two goals: that the country remain in the [Eurozone] and bailout policies change to include growth measures,” Samaras said in a statement on the state-run NET television network. “I did what I could to get a result but it was not possible.
“As such, I have informed the president of the republic and handed back the mandate.”
Prospects of a deal were dashed even before Samaras kicked off his effort to form a government by meeting with Alexis Tsipras, the head of the radical left Syriza group, which became the second-largest party in Parliament by picking up a mere 16.8% of the vote.
“It’s not going to happen,” Tsipras told The Times as he entered Parliament for talks with his conservative opponent, only to abandon them 40 minutes later. “Our positions are diametrically opposed,” he said later in a nationally televised address from Syriza headquarters.
Young, brash and charismatic, Tsipras will now get his own shot at stitching together a coalition.
The 37-year-old leftist leader has emerged as Greece's possible kingmaker after nearly quadrupling his electoral support Sunday, compared with elections in 2009. He rode a tidal wave of anger against the fiscal austerity prescribed by Europe’s paymaster, Germany, as a cure for Europe's debt crisis and as a condition of Greece's two international bailouts.
Continued failure by Greece's parties to agree on a coalition could force a second snap election within 35 days, piling political instability on top of the country’s financial uncertainty.
On Monday, that uncertainty weighed on markets across Europe, with the Athens exchange taking a 10% nosedive at the start of its session, before easing to a 6.6% loss in the afternoon.
Debt inspectors from Greece’s international creditors –- the European Union and the International Monetary Fund –- are due in Athens in the coming weeks to check up on an additional $14 billion in budget cuts to which Greek officials have already agreed. If Athens were to renege on those cuts, as demanded by Tsipras and other anti-austerity parties, the creditors could pull the plug on the multibillion-dollar bailouts keeping Greece afloat.
“The country’s future within the euro is seriously at stake,” said Theodore Couloumbis, vice president of the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “It all may get very ugly.”
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: New Democracy party leader Antonis Samaras arrives at the Greek Parliament in Athens. He gave up his mandate to form a coalition government after six hours. Credit: Pantelis Saitas / European Pressphoto Agency