Final Greek presidential vote as fresh crisis looms

Final Greek presidential vote as fresh crisis looms
People walk past the Greek parliament in Athens.

ATHENS - Greece's parliament will try to elect a president on Monday in a last-ditch bid to avoid snap general elections that could bring the hard-left to power and spark new concerns over the eurozone economy.

Should lawmakers fail - as expected - to elect a president in the third and final presidential vote, snap general elections would be triggered, which the anti-austerity radical leftist Syriza party are tipped to win.

The European Union and the International Monetary Fund, which have overseen two international bailouts of Greece, fear Syriza would undo many of Greece's ongoing economic reforms.

The country's dire finances nearly destroyed the eurozone. But even after the bailouts worth 240 billion euros (S$387 billion) and most of the debt held by private investors being wiped out, the economy has only just begun to recover after six years of contraction.

"President in 24 hours or the country on a knife-edge," headlined the pro-government Eleftheros Tipos newspaper on Sunday.

The definitive round of voting to choose a successor to President Karolos Papoulias comes after 11th hour efforts by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to get the government's candidate elected and avoid early polls.

"People do not want early elections - they want a Greek president coming out of this parliament," Samaras said Saturday in an interview with public broadcaster Nerit.

"I did and have done everything in my power to get a president elected, to avert early elections, because this is what national interest requires and because that is my own obligation."

Warning from Germany

The government's candidate, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, fell 32 votes short of the required 200 in the second round held on Tuesday.

Monday's final vote will see the target fall to 180 votes, but even this seems a tall order. Most newspapers predict the government will face a tough time getting its candidate elected.

Recent opinion polls show Samaras's ruling coalition trailing Syriza, which wants to renegotiate the conditions of the bailout and roll back unpopular austerity measures imposed by the creditors.

But Syriza's lead has narrowed to 3.3 per cent, from 3.6 per cent in early December, according to a survey by the Alco polling institute for Proto Thema newspaper, indicating the party would not have a clear majority to form a government on its own if polls were held now.

The looming political stalemate, as well as Syriza's political agenda, prompted German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble to warn on Saturday that any new government must respect commitments made by its predecessor.

The reforms required by the creditors have improved the government's finances but have taken a heavy toll on Greeks as unemployment has soared above 27 per cent and many people have had wages and benefits cut.

Syriza, which has declined to vote in the presidential election in order to force snap polls, wants to raise salaries and pensions, halt layoffs and freeze the privatisation of state assets - key elements of reforms demanded by creditors.

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 ($8.6 billion) in loans. This extension expires in February.

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