By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece heads for what is likely to be an inconclusive parliamentary election on Sunday, paving the way for wrangling between parties to forge a ruling coalition in a deeply divided political landscape.
Opinion polls show Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' conservative New Democracy ahead of Alexis Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party, which ruled Greece in 2015-2019 at the peak of its debt crisis.
A new voting system means an outright winner is unlikely unless the first party achieves more than about 46% of the vote, leaving the two main candidates in a scramble to find potential allies or - the more probable outcome - to lead the country into a second election in a month's time.
After the election, and if the forecasts are confirmed, the three leading parties - New Democracy, Syriza and the Socialist PASOK - will each receive, in turn, a three-day mandate to try to form a government.
New Democracy, with poll ratings at 32-37%, could in theory team up with PASOK, ranking third on 8-11%. The couple put their historic animosity aside and ruled Greece during the debt crisis. But Mitsotakis, 55, told Reuters in an interview this week that he prefers "a strong one-party government".
"Experience has taught us in Greece that one-party governments are much more stable than coalition governments," Mitsotakis said.
The once-mighty PASOK saw its support crumble to single digits after signing up to Greece's first international bailout in 2010. It has been attempting a comeback under a new leader since 2021, 44-year old civil engineer Nikos Androulakis.
Its relations with New Democracy were soured by a wiretapping scandal last year, when Androulakis said Greece's intelligence service had listened to his phone conversations.
PASOK has sent conflicting signals on whether it would join a coalition government. It says neither Mitsotakis nor Tsipras could serve as prime minister if PASOK joined a coalition.
"If Mitsotakis or Tsipras think PASOK will be their crutch for power, they should look elsewhere," Androulakis told party supporters on May 17.
PASOK also accuses Syriza of making promises it cannot fulfil.
Syriza, which introduced the proportional voting system when in power, says it would try to form a broad coalition government and has urged Greeks to give it a chance to rule without the terms of the harsh bailout agreed with the euro zone that hampered its last stint in power. The bailout ended in 2018.
Support for Syriza ranges between 27-31%.
Polls suggest Syriza would need to team up with more than two parties, including PASOK, to win a majority in the 300-seat parliament.
Addressing PASOK directly during an election rally, Tsipras said: "I invite you on Monday to sit at one table after Syriza's great victory, after our people's great victory, which will open the way for a progressive government."
Another potential partner for the 48-year old firebrand leftist leader would be his Marxist former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who leads the small Mera25 party.
But relations between the two are frosty since 2015 when Varoufakis had to resign to help Tsipras clinch Greece's third bailout deal with euro zone lenders. Varoufakis has ruled out joining a coalition with Syriza.
Greece's Communist Party, which is on 5-6%, has also ruled out participating in a coalition or backing a minority government.
If the numbers do not stack up, the leading candidates may need backing from right-wing Kyriakos Velopoulos, a part-time TV presenter whose Hellenic Solution party made it into parliament in 2019. Tsipras has in the past led a left-right coalition.
Velopoulos rejected the scenarios in a Mega TV interview this week, calling the two main parties "unreliable".
(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Deborah Kyvrikosaios; Writing by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Michele Kambas and Gareth Jones)