Marathon efforts to break Greece's post-electoral paralysis are lurching into a ninth day amid the country's worst crisis in decades, with fractious party leaders summoned to yet another emergency meeting Tuesday that could see the reins of government surrendered to non-politicians.
The hectic haggling in Athens cast a deep gloom over global markets, which fell Monday on fears that the debt-crippled country will have to hold another election within weeks — the only way out if squabbling party leaders fail to strike a power-sharing deal.
That would squander vital time earmarked for reforming Greece's fast-shrinking economy. In return for the two massive international bailouts that are its only shield from bankruptcy, Greece has committed to implement further cutbacks. It will otherwise face the catastrophic prospect of bankruptcy and an ignominious exit from the euro, which would cause unknown consequences for Europe and the world.
European finance ministers on Monday urged Athens to struggle on with its reform schedule, warning that a euro exit was no longer inconceivable.
On May 6, a Greek electorate exhausted by nearly 2 1/2 years of constant income cuts, tax hikes and horrific unemployment expressed its anger in the voting booth.
Greeks lashed out at the two mainstream parties widely blamed with dismal fiscal stewardship that ended the decade of prosperity since Greece's adoption of the euro in 2001. Instead, citizens backed a bevy of small anti-austerity parties — ranging from the Stalinist left to the least salubrious tendrils of the right — but gave no single group enough seats to control Parliament.
Late Monday, President Karolos Papoulias convened the three heads of the only clearly pro-European parties, the first-place conservatives, the Socialist PASOK and the Democratic Left, to try to agree on a coalition government of technocrats or respected personalities, with broad parliamentary support.
PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos said after the meeting that six of the seven parties that elected legislators would be invited to new emergency talks hosted by Papoulias on Tuesday afternoon. He did not list among the invitees the extremist right-wing Golden Dawn group, which — despite its taste in insignia, slogans and creed — adamantly rejects the neo-Nazi tag.
"The effort to form a government continues. All three of us political leaders agreed that it is absolutely necessary to have the broader support of political parties to attain such a viable government," conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras said.
"The people have given us a very clear mandate: We must try, as far as we can, all of us together, to shape this new government," Samaras added. "Everyone must now assume their historic responsibilities."
Papoulias launched his last-ditch bid to find a solution on Sunday, after a week of party talks proved fruitless. If it doesn't work, the country will have to hold new elections in June.
The turmoil has roiled international markets and led Greece's battered stock exchange to nose-dive over the past week. The benchmark General Index shed a further 4.56 percent Monday, closing below the 600-point mark at 584.04 points.
The euro sank to a three-month low against the dollar and borrowing costs for Spain and Italy spiked as bond traders anticipated that financial stress could spread far beyond Greece. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 107 points to 12,712.
"The situation is serious," Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter said, adding that even if there were no provisions to kick Greece out of the euro currency union, there was a theoretical possibility it could be let out of the European Union.
EU Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, meanwhile, insisted that the best solution all around would be for Greece to stay in the euro.
But that could be tough. Next month, Greece is supposed to detail €14.5 billion worth of additional cuts for 2013-14, while implementing already agreed reforms. But anti-austerity politicians — led by the second-placed election finisher, Radical Left Coalition — insist the country should scrap its commitments, arguing that European officials are bluffing on the euro exit scenario.
Communist party leader Aleka Papariga, who addressed thousands of supporters at an Athens rally Monday, said she would not attend the new talks.
Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis said after Monday's meeting that he was "categorically" against a government of technocrats or respected personalities, adding: "That would be a defeat for politics."
With the left apparently out of the picture, a potential breakthrough could come from the right. An hour before Tuesday's meeting, Papoulias will separately see Panos Kammenos, head of the new Independent Greeks party that garnered 10.6 percent of the vote on May 6.
Samaras said there was "some margin" for Kammenos to back a power-sharing deal.
But political analyst George Sefertzis warned that leaving the left out of government could create more problems than it solved.
"It would be better to have new elections ... rather than seek a hasty way out that will have the disadvantage of creating an opposition strengthened by the non-inclusion of the left," he said.
Left-wing support seems to be growing as new elections appear ever likelier. In a poll published Monday, the Radical Left Coalition had 20.5 percent of public support, compared with 19.4 percent for New Democracy and 11.8 percent for PASOK. The margin of error was 3.1 percent for the Rass poll of 1,002 people, conducted May 10-11 for the Eleftheros Typos newspaper.
Sefertzis said holding a new election would be "playing with fire" since the delay would further complicate Greece's financial situation. But he said that a new popular mandate clearly backing a coalition government might force the issue.
Opinion polls have shown that most Greeks want a power-sharing deal.
"I believe that a way must be found for all the political parties to find some common ground of communication, to agree at least on what they consider is necessary for survival of this country," Athens IT technician Andreas Chrisitakis said.
Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos contributed.