By Deepa Babington
ATHENS (Reuters) - Support for Greece's two pro-bailout parties has sunk to an all-time low, but pollsters predict the squabbling rivals will still scrape through upcoming elections with enough seats in parliament to push through the reforms demanded by lenders.
With Greece finally clinching a 130-billion-euro rescue package to avert a messy default, attention is slowly shifting to elections due in April - with financial markets and European partners nervously waiting to see whether a new government will swallow the bitter austerity pill prescribed in return for aid.
Backing the austerity steps has cost Greece's two biggest political parties dearly. Their ratings have plunged as ordinary Greeks reeling from tax hikes and wage cuts blame them for the country's slide to the brink of bankruptcy.
"We want elections now, we want change. These guys have taken it all from us, it's time for new faces," said Panagiotis Arsenis, a 65-year old public sector pensioner. "They've ripped us off. Who will stand up for us now?"
But an election system that favors big parties and a likely rebound by the currently leaderless Socialists of PASOK suggest that the conservative New Democracy party and PASOK will ultimately find themselves with little alternative but to renew their current uneasy coalition.
Panagiotis Theodorikakos, head of the GPO polling group, said he expected the two archrivals, thrust by Greece's crisis into a reluctant alliance under technocrat prime minister Lucas Papademos, to secure enough seats to repeat the exercise, but this time under ND leader Antonis Samaras.
Opinion polls such as a GPO survey released on Monday, which had New Democracy on 19 percent and PASOK on 13 percent, only tell half the story, as they include Greeks who will not vote, are undecided or plan to cast blank votes in protest.
A survey by the Marc polling group gave the two main parties a combined 27 percent - but found that this became 38 percent once non-voters, the undecided and protest voters were excluded.
Since the biggest party is automatically given 50 extra seats, and many small parties' votes will also be discounted for failing to cross the 3 percent threshold, a share of somewhere between 35 and 40 percent should be enough for a majority, pollsters say.
Nevertheless, the depth of Greece's economic malaise, the degree of public ill feeling and the rivalry between the two main parties, to say nothing of rebel deputies threatening to set up new groups or crossing the floor, mean that progress towards a pro-bailout coalition government will not be smooth.
"I have been doing this job for 22 years and never has it been as confused and volatile as at present," said Costas Panagopoulos of the Alco polling group, before adding:
"Somehow we're going to end up with a coalition of the two parties," he said. "I do not see another coalition government stable enough to govern the country."
Widespread voter disillusionment has boosted leftist, anti-bailout parties like the Left Coalition and the Democratic Coalition in the polls - and Greeks can even opt for the extreme-right Golden Dawn party.
Panagopoulos expects at least seven parties to be in the new parliament, potentially complicating matters for the big players.
But he also says the dismal ratings of PASOK, which has slumped spectacularly since sweeping to power in 2009 with almost 44 percent of the vote, have the potential to rebound sharply.
The party is still formally run by former prime minister George Papandreou, whose disastrous call for a referendum on the bailout cost him his job, and has yet to elect a new leader.
Evangelos Venizelos looks to be the frontrunner to take over, and pollsters say his next moves will make a big difference to how far voters punish the party.
"For me the critical point is how PASOK is going to handle the change in leadership," said Panagopoulos. "And most important, how the new leader - probably Venizelos - will act and how he will try to reconnect with voters."
PASOK - which has ruled Greece for more than half the period since a junta was toppled in 1974 - is due to elect a leader on March 18, but could bring the vote forward.
If repeated on election day, the Marc survey would give New Democracy 117 seats and PASOK 39 seats, for a total of 156 in the 300-seat parliament, the polling group said.
And if small parties together took a plausible 14 percent of the total vote but individually failed to enter parliament, then PASOK and New Democracy combined would need only 35 percent of total votes to secure a thin majority, said Sophia Tsiliyanni, general manager at Marc.
Roughly speaking, a 39 to 40 percent share of the total vote is likely to be enough for a stable government, she said.
Mathematically, the myriad left-wing parties could muster an anti-bailout coalition. However, they are riven by rivalries and the biggest group, Democratic Left, is more than 10 percentage points behind New Democracy, whose leader Samaras would still get the first shot at forming a government.
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and David Stamp; Editing by Kevin Liffey)