Greece faces tall order to prevent early elections: analysts

Sophie Makris
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Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras addresses his party's parliamentary group at the parliament in Athens, on December 11, 2014

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras addresses his party's parliamentary group at the parliament in Athens, on December 11, 2014 (AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki)

Athens (AFP) - Greece's embattled government will be hard-pushed to forestall early elections -- and a blow to fiscal reforms -- by steering a snap presidential ballot through parliament next week, analysts say.

A successor to 85-year-old President Karolos Papoulias must be found or under the constitution, parliament will have to be dissolved by February -- right in the middle of crucial talks between Greece and its EU-IMF creditors.

The prospect of early elections has alarmed financial markets and caused Greek stocks to slide dramatically for three days, although they showed signs of steadying on Friday.

The government will need 200 MPs in the first two votes to elect its candidate, former EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, or 180 MPs in the third and final vote.

But it only has 155 MPs in the 300-seat chamber.

"We do not have the number required," deputy development minister Gerassimos Giakoumatos admitted this week.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras hopes to find the remaining 25 deputies from among independent MPs and the deputies of two smaller parties -- centre-left Democratic Left and the Independent Greeks, a nationalist party.

The prospect of early elections strikes fear into the markets and Greece's EU-IMF creditors as radical leftist party Syriza, which opposes the country's bailout agreement, has a steady lead in opinion polls.

- 'Extreme forces' -

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned on Thursday that "extreme forces" could take power in the crisis-hit country.

"I think the Greeks ... know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the Eurozone," Juncker said on Austrian TV.

"There is a chance that the helm of the country could be taken by extreme forces," he said.

Greece's presidential vote was supposed to be held in February, but the government suddenly decided to bring forward the first ballot to December 17.

The remaining two rounds will be held on December 23 and 29.

Samaras said the decision was made to remove political uncertainty as Greece is currently locked in negotiations with its international creditors over its latest budget and fiscal reforms for the coming year.

- Failure to inspire -

But his candidate Dimas, known as a longtime insider of the conservative New Democracy party, has so far failed to inspire, analysts note.

"The candidature of Stavros Dimas has failed to create a dynamic," said analyst George Sefertzis.

Political scientist Thanassis Diamantopoulos added that Dimas, 73, was "an emblematic figure of the old, discredited political class."

However, independent MPs in particular faced a stark choice should they fail to back Dimas, he added.

"Most of them have little chance of re-election in a general vote," Diamantopoulos said.

Among the 24 independent deputies, some of whom were originally elected with the conservative and socialist parties in the ruling coalition, a few have declared in favour of averting early elections.

But Democratic Left, which has 10 deputies, and the Independent Greeks, with 12, have officially announced they will oppose Dimas.

The leader of Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos, went a step further by denouncing bribery allegedly used in ruling party circles to sway a number of his deputies.

In an interview with the state parliament channel, former prime minister Costas Simitis lamented the culture of conflict in Greek politics.

However, a preliminary judicial investigation into the issue found insufficient proof to probe further.

Greek politics is marked by "failure to agree, exaggeration and a hunt for enemies. There can be no progress like this," Simitis said.

As the political uncertainty deepened, Greek 10-year bonds spiked this week and the Athens stock exchange lost around 20 percent in three days.

Samaras has warned that early general elections could bring "turmoil."

"Markets in Greece and abroad ... are afraid that if a president is not elected and the country is led to early elections, there will be general turmoil," the PM warned his deputies.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, a 40-year-old former Communist, has pledged to raise wages and pensions, halt privatisations and re-negotiate Greece's bailout agreement with the EU-IMF creditors.