Greece faces weeks of political turmoil that could threaten its financial bailout after voters angry at crippling income cuts punished mainstream politicians, let a far-right extremist group into parliament and gave no party enough votes to govern alone.
Greek conservative leader Antonis Samaras, whose pro-austerity party came first in national elections but fell well short of a governing majority, is now trying to form a new coalition government.
Samaras has three days in which to build an alliance, after receiving the formal mandate from President Karolos Papoulias on Monday.
But initial exploratory talks with Alexis Tsipras, the 38-year-old head of the second-placed Radical Left Coalition party, failed, increasing fears that Samaras, or anyone else, will be unable to forge a new government that will command a majority in parliament.
"The campaign positions of Mr Samaras are at the opposite end of the alternative proposals of a left-wing government,'' said Tsipras, who strongly opposes Greece's bailout commitments.
"There can be no government of national salvation, as [Samaras] has named it, because his signatures and commitments to the loan agreement do not constitute salvation but a tragedy for the people and the country.''
Another election, possibly as soon as next month, looms for a country that is reliant on international support to avoid bankruptcy.
Sunday's vote saw parties backing the stiff international rescue package lose their majority in parliament, raising the chances of a possible Greek exit from the common euro currency.
The uncertainty weighed on markets across Europe, with the Athens exchange closing 6.7 per cent down.
Official results showed conservative New Democracy came first with 18.8 per cent and 108 of Parliament's 300 seats.
Samaras, who backs Greece's bailout commitments for austerity but has called for some changes to the bailout plan, will launch coalition-forming talks later in the day.
"I understand the rage of the people, but our party will not leave Greece ungoverned,'' Samaras said.
But even with the support of the only other clearly pro-bailout party elected, Socialist PASOK, New Democracy would fall two seats short of a governing majority.
If the deadlock does not ease, Greece faces new elections under a caretaker government in mid-June, about the time it has to detail new drastic austerity measures worth $19bn for 2013 to 2014.
Greek voters on Sunday delivered a resounding anti-austerity election verdict, punishing the ruling coalition and leaving the country's political future and the eurozone's stability hanging in the balance.
Greece's two-party coalition, which imposed a harsh austerity programme in return for an international bailout, was routed according to near-complete official figures released early on Monday.
PASOK party and the Conservatives of New Democracy (ND) scored just 32.4 per cent between them, plummeting from 77.4 per cent in the 2009 vote, according to interior ministry figures based on 95 per cent of the vote counted.
While the ND scraped into first place in the election, it was with the party's lowest score so far.
In second place came the leftist, anti-austerity Syriza party, with 16.6 per cent of the vote and 51 seats, more than tripling its 2009 showing.
The once-mighty PASOK was reduced to third place, its vote more than halved to 13.3 per cent, or 41 seats, the voters' deserting it for having pushed through punishing public spending cuts.
The election also fragmented the political landscape, with voters sending at least seven parties to parliament, two more than previously.
One of the newcomers is the neo-Nazi Hryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), breaking into parliament for the first time in nearly 40 years. Its 6.9 per cent of the vote should give it 21 deputies, according to the latest ministry figures.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said it was "of utmost importance" that Greece stick to the reform course agreed in exchange for an EU bailout, despite the voter backlash.
"It is of course of utmost importance that the programmes in Greece continue," she said in Berlin.
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|William A. Cook|
|Timothy V. Gatto|