Greece scrambles to avoid early elections
ATHENS - Agence France-Presse
AFP PhotoThe race was on in Greece on Dec. 18 to forestall early elections -- and a possible blow to fiscal reforms -- hours after parliament failed to elect a new president.
Only 160 deputies on Wednesday supported the government candidate, former EU commissioner Stavros Dimas, far short of the 200 required.
The focus will now shift to December 23 when the parliament will vote in a second round, once again requiring 200 votes for Dimas to win.
"First ballot below expectations," commented the liberal daily newspaper Kathimerini, adding that as far as the government was concerned, "a battle may have been lost but the war can still be won."
Greece's stock market opened down, but quickly recovered with gains of 1.18 percent in a sign that, for now at least, the financial sector is holding its nerve.
Last week, the Greek stock market lost around a fifth of its value.
The clock is ticking on chances to avoid a political crisis that could in turn derail painful economic reforms aimed at putting one of the European Union's most troubled economies back on track.
"Without a last-minute change (in the political scene) it will be difficult to avert early elections," argued political analyst Thomas Gerakis.
According to reports, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has rejected calls to hold elections in late 2015 and has also dismissed calls from several lawmakers for a national unity government.
Greece recently secured a two-month extension from its EU-IMF creditors to conclude an ongoing fiscal audit that will determine the release of some 7.0 billion euros ($8.7 billion) in loans.
This extension expires in February.
International markets are watching nervously, with Greek bond yields rising and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker recently warning the nation against delivering the "wrong" election result.
Should a third and final round be required on December 29, Dimas would need just 180 votes. However, a third failure would trigger the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
The centre-left Ta Nea daily said the situation resembles a "difficult crossword puzzle" for the government, which will need to do more to win support from independent deputies -- with only five of the 24 backing Dimas in the first round.
"The race is on to find 20 lawmakers in 11 days," wrote pro-government daily Eleftheros Typos.
After Wednesday's vote, bookmakers in Greece lowered the return on parliament failing to elect a president in all three votes, with the odds now at 1.45 to 1.
The government brought forward the election from February, when it will be locked in delicate negotiations with its creditors, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
The government was hoping to settle the political landscape ahead of those talks, but the gamble may backfire.
With 155 deputies, the government only has the slenderest of majorities in parliament and is facing a growing challenge from the radical leftist party Syriza, which wants to end a four-year austerity drive and re-negotiate Greece's EU bailout.
According to a recent poll, more than 50 percent of Greeks oppose early elections, which would be the second in two years.