By Dina Kyriakidou
Athens (Reuters) - "Gentlemen, we are finished," said the patrician President, calling an abrupt halt to two hours of baiting and cat-calling between furious Greek politicians. "I'm starting to get upset myself now. We are finished."
The final collapse of talks to forge a new Greek government triggered repeat elections and fears of a chaotic exit from the euro zone. But it is the manner of that collapse, the acrimony and rancor cited by Karolos Papoulias, that bodes ill for efforts after June polls to pull Greece back from the brink.
"It was a complete madhouse," a source at the socialist PASOK party told Reuters after their leader, Evangelos Venizelos, returned from the May 17 showdown. "The discussion was unbelievable."
Similar florid accounts emerged from other quarters.
When conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, 60, deserted a technocrat government to force May 6 elections, he was confident of a mandate for austerity measures demanded by European capitals for a 130 billion euro bailout package.
That calculation failed dramatically.
Voters infuriated by grinding poverty, spending cuts and corruption, punished Samaras and fellow mainstream party leader Evangelos Venizelos. Leftist Alexis Tsipras, 37, emerged with the power to block them. Greece, he said, could ditch its spending cuts and renounce its debts to EU partners, yet enlist their help in keeping the euro currency some 80 percent of Greeks cherish.
"Pythagoras didn't manage to square the circle and god knows these guys don't know how to either," said one EU diplomat in Brussels, echoing widespread sentiment in European capitals.
"The Greeks seem to have no understanding of the seriousness of their predicament and that is a great source of frustration. There's a breaking point and I think we're getting close to it."
A sense of unreality was only underlined by the strutting theatricals of a rightist party, Golden Dawn, which polled nearly seven percent. Nazi-style salutes and accusations of foreign conspiracy drew derision from the mainstream parties, whose failures had opened the door to them.
In nine days of talks, rivals Venizelos, 54, and Samaras, denied a majority even if they could bury their own differences, rained pressure on Tsipras and his SYRIZA party.
Tsipras, for his part, seemed to thrive in the limelight, cultivating a relaxed demeanor, an easy walk, smiling and joking, the man who would square the circle.
Samaras, scion of a distinguished Greek political and literary family, arrived at meetings with quick, long, impatient strides; behind him a failed campaign, distinguished for many by his perhaps somewhat insensitive use of the theme tune of the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean" with its unfortunate overtones of looted treasure and overseas havens for the lawless.
PRIME MINISTER'S CHAIR
Tsipras, pointedly flouting convention by dispensing with a tie in the presidential palace, sat across an oak table from Venizelos, a professor of constitutional law, and Samaras like a student before his assessors. What ensued was a battle for the moral high ground in a land entering a fifth year of recession.
President Papoulias read out a letter describing the dire state of the economy and banking system. Samaras and Venizelos outlined the dangers a second round of elections would bring as people hived off their funds for fear of the worst.
"So the danger of the banking system collapsing was discovered on May 7? Already, 73.5 billion euros have left the country. The people's verdict is not responsible for this."
Venizelos would have none of it.
"If SYRIZA chooses to go to elections because its popularity is up and it expects to come first in the election, it must bear the responsibility for what will follow," notes of the meeting quoted him as saying.
"Unanimity through blackmail has never been a basic ingredient of democracy," Tsipras shot back at those ranged opposite him.
Tsipras offers himself as a break with the old political class that led Greece into unmanageable debt. Policy proposals on his facebook page, where a pop star scowl practically burns through the screen, border with a riot of hearts, kisses and smiley faces posted by mainly female fans.
Tsipras, a former communist student activist, put the blame for Greece's plight squarely on his interlocutors.
In this, even his detractors in Brussels might feel sympathy for Tsipras. It was Samaras's conservatives who in recent years misled Brussels on the scale of Greece's debt, a deceit that has thrown a shadow over the entire project of European union that emerged from the ruins of World War Two.
The conservatives accuses Venizelos's PASOK of faking numbers in order to join the euro in the first place; something PASOK denies.
The meeting degenerated rapidly to the point where Samaras, possessed of a fiery manner, abandoned the polite plural in addressing the small Independent Greeks party leader Panos Kammenos, another opponent of the austerity plan.
"I see you don't want to discuss any proposals at all," official notes quoted Kammenos as saying. "All you want is to be prime minister. You want the chair."
As tempers frayed, the goading escalated.
Venizelos, thick set with a 'tough-guy' image that can obscure a sharp political mind, found himself repeatedly told by Tsipras across the table: "Don't get upset."
"The only thing holding back Samaras was that minutes were being kept," a party source told Reuters after the meeting.
One newspaper portrayed Tsipras, who some polls have suggested could win the next election, as a little boy riding a rocking horse, clutching a ballot box like a precious toy.
Skepticism is shared overseas. One EU diplomat said there was widespread frustration at what they saw as Tsipras's weak grasp of economics and the dangers of Greece abandoning the bailout plan. But there was little they could do.
"The next steps are not coming from Brussels. It's in the hands of markets and Athens," the diplomat said.
Markets have indeed been punishing Greece.
The prospect of SYRIZA winning the election, or a weak pro-bailout government emerging, has sent the euro and markets across the continent tumbling. President Papoulias said Greeks had withdrawn up to 800 million euros ($1 billion) from banks.
The EU, while unlikely to stand idly by, must be careful not to undermine the pro-bailout vote by any overt interventions. At the same time it might help mainstream parties by suggestions of some flexibility on debt repayments or growth measures.
Sources at Venizelos's socialist party, PASOK, said there had been a moment during initial inter-party talks when some saw a glimmer of hope it could win over a small party to create a majority government together with New Democracy.
At the headquarters of that party, the Democratic Left, its moderate leader Fotis Kouvelis met with a small team of associates to decide his final answer.
Tsipras issued a scathing statement accusing the party of selling out for party gain.
"The phones were ringing off the hook," one party aide said. "Supporters from all over Greece were calling to tell us not to join the bailout forces."
The party, split down the middle, recoiled from any coalition deal, though Tsipras's scorn for even considering the plan had its effect on Kouvelis.
"He is slandering us and this is a disgrace," Kouvelis was quoted by an aide as telling his team.
Tsipras and Venizelos, accusing each other of putting political ambition above national interests, also had tense exchanges, the minutes showed.
"Have we come to the stage of a TV debate before the President? I'm very sorry," said Tsipras.
"You may be as sorry as you like," Venizelos replied. "I'm more sorry for what the country is going through."
That initial coalition talks between the parties would be largely a formality became clear from the moment the president gave Samaras a first attempt to form a government on May 7. All meetings leading up to the final showdown at the palace were brief, at under an hour. They were going through the motions.
President Papoulias, 82, asked how talks were going, would raise his hands and shake his head in dismay.
One meeting lasted but ten minutes. A World War Two anti-Nazi resistance fighter, Papoulias made no attempt to hide his distaste when obliged to sit with the ultra-right Golden Dawn party, but sat stony-faced while leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos suggested a personality take over to do "as he sees fit".
When Mihaloliakos walked along the corridor to the President's office, journalists sat on the floor - a protest against attempts by his aides to make them stand to attention when the rightist leader held a news conference after the poll.
Conservative Samaras, seen as having pitched his own campaign too far to the right, must hope that the public, for all its anger, will take fright at the antics of Golden Dawn and that his party can draw off its voters.
A senior official of a core EU country said that while some in the 17 member euro zone were beginning to see benefits in "cutting out the bad apple", others recoiled from the idea.
"There is an unshakeable belief in the European project and the euro zone, and that is dominant. That can't be discounted."
Greeks may balk at the prospect of being propelled from the euro zone and turning back to a drachma likely to be ravaged by inflation. But the fear in Europe and beyond is that the same leaders with the same ambitions and enmities will emerge from the June 17 vote equally unable to agree a rescue for Greece
In winding up the final meeting, President Papoulias seemed keenly aware of the broader implications of the sometimes chaotic scenes he had witnessed.
"It is a great misfortune that we did not manage to achieve something," he said. "We all bear significant responsibility, I would say historic responsibility."
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels, writing by Ralph Boulton in London; editing by Janet McBride)