ATHENS - Greece was plunged into political uncertainty Sunday after voters bolstered the far left and neo-Nazi right in a wave of protest that saw the crushing defeat of the dominant political parties they blame for Greece’s economic collapse.
The parliamentary elections were the first time Greece’s foreign loan agreement had been put to a democratic test, and the outcome was clear: a rejection of the terms of the bailout and a fragmentation of the vote so severe that the two more-established parties were scrambling to form alliances in a hung Parliament.
The elections were seen as pivotal, determining the country’s future in Europe and its prospects for economic recovery. The outcome, along with that in France, is expected to resonate far beyond Europe and possibly lead to more upheaval in the eurozone. The results were also a clear rebuke to European leaders that their strategy for Greece had failed.
With 80 percent of votes counted, the center-right New Democracy was in first place with 20 percent of the vote, or 111 seats in the 300-member Parliament, a sharp drop from the 34 percent it won in 2009. In a major shift, the Socialists, who dominated for decades and were in power when Greece asked for foreign aid in 2010, appeared to have only 14 percent of the vote, or 42 seats - down significantly from their 44 percent share in 2009.
The results put them behind the Coalition of the Radical Left, called Syriza, which opposes the terms of Greece’s agreement with its foreign lenders. It drew 16 percent of the vote, or 50 seats, dominating in all major metropolitan areas.
In a sign of the depth of the social turmoil here, early results also showed the far-right Golden Dawn Party, whose members perform Nazi salutes at rallies, pulled in 6.8 percent of the vote - compared with less than 1 percent in 2009 - enough to enter Parliament for the first time with 21 seats.
Starting Monday, the front-runners have three days to try to form a government. But with seven parties expected to enter Parliament, the prospects for stability appeared low.
“It’s a completely fragmented Parliament,’’ said Loukas Tsoukalis, the president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, an Athens research institute. “The two former big parties have suffered a defeat which is greater than most people had expected.’’
He said that he expected new elections soon.
“The question is what happens in between, whether there are any realignments in the Greek political system that provide credible alternatives to protest movements,’’ Tsoukalis said. “If this doesn’t happen, then Greece is in deep’’ trouble, he added.
The two main parties were struggling to respond to the end of their nearly 40-year dominance of Greek politics. The Socialists’ leader, Evangelos Venizelos, called for a national unity government, saying that a coalition with only the Socialists and New Democracy would not have legitimacy.
Calling Sunday an “exceptionally painful day,’’ Venizelos said that the Greek parties that had said there was an alternative to the loan agreement had misled voters.
“God of Greece, help us,’’ he said.
The New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras, on Sunday appeared to reject the possibility of a coalition with the Socialists. He called instead for a “government of national salvation’’ aimed at “modifying’’ the terms of a second loan agreement Greece signed with creditors in February, while still keeping Greece in the eurozone. The clear winner in the elections, the leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, called for a coalition of left-wing parties.
In spite of the party leaders’ declarations to the contrary, some analysts said they would not rule out the possibility that New Democracy and the Socialists could form a coalition for their political survival, although it would have little legitimacy in the wake of elections in which voters migrated to antiausterity parties.
The success of Golden Dawn is the ultimate expression of a protest vote. The party has gained ground by campaigning on the streets of Athens, where many residents fear a sharp rise in illegal immigration and where politicians from mainstream parties resist treading for fear of attacks by angry voters.
The party’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, pledged to “fight the memorandum of the junta inside and outside Parliament,’’ referring to Greece’s debt deal with creditors.