QUICK TO CONCEDE: Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, left, shakes hands with New Democracy leader and winner of Greece's general election, Antonis Samaras, at a meeting in parliament in Athens yesterday. Picture: REUTERS

THE pro-bailout party New Democracy may have come first in Sunday's Greek election but supporters of the radical left anti-austerity Syriza bloc celebrated late into the night as if they were the real winners.

The election exposed a struggling nation deeply divided over whether to implement a harsh austerity package, the price for receiving ¤240bn in bail-out money from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to save its near-bankrupt economy.

"My biggest fear is of a social explosion," says a senior adviser to the country's likely next prime minister, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras.

"If there is no change in the policy mix, we're going to have a social explosion even if you bring Jesus Christ to govern this country."

According to official figures - with 99,9% of the votes counted - the conservative New Democracy party won just 29,7% of the vote, only 2,7 percentage points more than Syriza, which almost doubled its support from the previous election held on May 6.

When the votes for Greece's other anti-bailout parties, ranging from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn to the Marxist-Leninist KKE, are added to Syriza's tally, up to 52% of Greeks cast ballots against the terms of the international deal.

New Democracy supporters had initially slumped despairingly in their seats at the party's plush new headquarters as exit polls showed less than half a percentage point separating the party from Syriza, only to cheer up as official results showing a better performance trickled in.

Even then, celebrations were muted. "What is there for us to celebrate?" a member of Mr Samaras's inner circle asks. "Our country is in such a deep crisis."

The streets of central Athens are scarred by recurrent waves of protests, some hospitals are running short of vital medicines, thousands of businesses have closed, beggars and rough sleepers are multiplying and suicides are rising.

Mr Samaras now faces the task of convincing the centre-left Pasok movement to join a coalition charged with implementing highly unpopular spending cuts and privatisations as the economy nosedives.

Under the terms of the international bail-out, the new government must fire up to 150000 public servants, slash spending by ¤11bn this month, sell off a swathe of state-owned companies, improve tax collection and open closed professions to competition.

Once Greece's ruling party, Pasok's support collapsed to just 12,3% in Sunday's vote, giving the two pro-bailout parties just 40% of the popular vote, not a strong mandate for austerity.

A Pasok-New Democracy coalition is guaranteed a parliamentary majority thanks to a quirk of Greek electoral law which gives the winning party a bonus of 50 extra seats. But that will not win it the argument on Greece's streets.

The Greek economy is expected to shrink by 5% this year after contracting 7% last year and unemployment is running at almost 23%. Many economists believe the harsh austerity measures will only make matters worse in the short term.

Ominously, Pasok's first reaction to the results was to say that it would support a new Samaras administration but not formally join it, hardly a recipe for stable government in a country which has had two elections in less than two months.

Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos has previously said he would formally join a coalition only if Syriza did so as well, something which is politically impossible, given the radical left bloc's unstinting opposition to the austerity measures.

Greek analysts noted that Syriza's charismatic 37-year-old leader, former student communist Alexis Tsipras, conceded defeat quickly in a phone call to Mr Samaras, apparently relieved he was free of the pressure to form a government and make compromises.

"From Monday we will continue the fight," Mr Tsipras told cheering supporters outside Athens University. " The next government after this one will be a left government."

"We will fight to topple these policies," the youthful crowd chanted back as loudspeakers played Second World War Greek c ommunist resistance songs.

Filippos Nikolopoulos, a sociology professor at Crete University and Syriza supporter, says Mr Tsipras's fans were jubilant because they had won new force and authority by increasing their share of the vote so much on Sunday.

"We want Europe, we want to co-operate," he says. "But we do not want to be subjugated by (German Chancellor Angel) Merkel."

Stathis Stavropoulos, a newspaper cartoonist famous for his drawings depicting German officials preaching austerity at Greece as Nazi taskmasters, says that the new conservative government will have the people of Greece against it from the outset.

"Our dream of European union was very different," he says. "It was a union of countries and peoples, not a union to serve banks and not a Fourth German Reich."

Using the term for a Nazi regional leader under Hitler's Reich, Mr Stavropoulos says: "Our country is under occupation. How would you feel if they sent a Gauleiter to run your country and tell you what to do?"

The cartoonist says he has nothing against the German people or other European nations. Indeed, he has never visited Berlin, Paris or London - but is familiar with Moscow, Beijing and Nicaragua from his c ommunist activities.

"The Soviet Union may have ended but not the dream of democratic communism," he says.