Does Greece have the energy for a fight?

A man begs on a street during a demonstration in Athens February 12, 2012.
Image caption Austerity measures have hit Greeks hard, with youth unemployment rising to 54%

If Greece were a man, he would have aged decades in the past two weeks.

The grey hairs would be sprouting, the wrinkles showing. It has been an extraordinarily tumultuous time here.

This country has overcome so much in its long and rich history. But even Greeks are bewildered by what has happened in the last fortnight.

Roll back to 6 May: election day beneath a beautiful early summer sun. As predicted, an austerity-weary nation seized the chance to punish the much-reviled political establishment.

The two main parties that had together previously garnered about 80% of votes, now reduced to barely 30%; a virulently anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi party grabbing 21 seats in parliament for the first time; huge support for parties wanting to tear up Greece's international bailout.

The election was inconclusive and Greece was left without a government during the worst financial crisis in its modern history. Days of political wrangling began.

Image caption The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party garnered an unprecedented 21 seats in parliament in May's election

Three party leaders were successively given the mandate to form a coalition. Three failed. The politicians seemed unable to agree on whether to adhere to - or reject - the bailout and further austerity.

And so Greece's president had one final try, summoning party leaders to call for an emergency government. A man who had fought the Nazis in the Greek resistance during the Second World War was forced to receive the head of the neo-Nazi party in his presidential office as part of the consultations.

But then, the inevitable: the negotiations collapsed amidst a barrage of acrimony. Fresh elections were announced for 17 June.

Greek tragedy

The country has been left in a perilous power vacuum, a limp caretaker government providing a thin veneer of leadership.

University professors and businessmen are among those in the unconventional cabinet. The foreign ministry has been given to an 83-year-old former diplomat.

The 300 MPs elected on 6 May had just 24 hours to enjoy the trappings of office: sworn in last Thursday, the parliament was dissolved a day later to prepare for the second election. For the new faces in the chamber, it might just be the shortest political career in history.

It could all read like a script from an Aeschylus tragedy - but the drama is real and the consequences potentially severe. For this country's membership of the euro is at stake.

European leaders maintain that Greece cannot hope to secure its place in the Eurozone unless it sticks to the bailout and cost-cutting.

Any deviation, say Brussels and Berlin, would lead Greece's loan to be withheld. That would force the country to default on its debt and probably leave the euro.

On the face of it, the carrot should work. Polls show the vast majority of Greeks want to keep the euro. But it is more complex than that. For most here are also deeply opposed to the austerity measures that have pushed a third of Greeks below the poverty line and led unemployment to record highs of 21% - or 54% among the youth.

And if it came down to a choice between years more punishing austerity or an exit from the euro and a leap into the unknown, it's still unclear how many would jump.

The leftwing party Syriza came second in the election, pledging to revoke the bailout and reject further spending cuts, despite the threat from Brussels that it could mean Greece kisses the euro goodbye.

Now polls show the party could come first next time: a scenario that sends the fear of God into European leaders.

Hopes fading

Ultimately, both sides will count on brinkmanship. Germany knows that most Greeks like the Euro. Greeks know Germany fears that one country leaving could lead the whole European project to unravel. Which side will blink first?

Not Mrs Merkel, it seems, who - according to the Greek government spokesman - suggested that Greece even hold a referendum on the euro, though her office denies the claim.

Image caption Weary voters dealt a blow to the two mainstream parties in Greece's May election

It would be an astonishing suggestion if true - and a high-stakes gamble that she could come to regret.

Amidst it all, any hope remaining that Greece might pull itself out of the quagmire has crumbled. News that hundreds of millions of euros were withdrawn from Greek accounts with the present uncertainty sparked rumours of a bank run.

It is not happening, but if it were to come about, it could send this country under. A Twitter message that Greek banks had limited individual withdrawals to fifty euros prompted yet more panic. Again it was untrue. But financial recovery and market stability are based on confidence. And there is none of that here for now.

And so Greece limps on towards its second election in six weeks.

It will inevitably be framed here as a referendum on euro membership: the message from the pro-bailout parties and Europe's leaders being that Greece must vote for cost-cutting to keep the currency.

But this is a nation that feels pushed around by Berlin and beaten by austerity. It has battled to stay in the Euro throughout this recession. Maybe it is just too exhausted to keep on fighting.