Greek lawmakers failed to elect a new president in a first round of voting yesterday (17 December), leaving Prime Minister Antonis Samaras looking for as many as 20 votes from independents and small parties, in order to avoid snap elections early next year.
With two more rounds still to come, a win for the government had not been expected on Wednesday. But the result was below many expectations, just meeting the minimum threshold officials had seen as adequate before the vote.
Of the 300 members of parliament, 160 voted in favour of the government’s candidate Stavros Dimas, with 135 against, and five absent, short of the 200-vote supermajority needed to elect a president in the first round.
In Brussels, the European Commission took the unprecedented step of formally endorsing Dimas, a former Commissioner.
Greek media had speculated that the government could win between 161 and 167 votes, but only five opposition deputies sided with the 155 members of the ruling coalition, and a number of votes the government had been hoping for failed to materialise.
The head of state is a largely ceremonial post, but failure to elect a president with a three-fifths majority in parliament triggers early elections.
Polls suggest they would be won by the leftist Syriza party, which promises to renegotiate the international bailout accord Greece still needs to keep its finances afloat.
A stony-faced Samaras said he hoped parliament would elect a president in the two remaining rounds of voting on 23 December and 29 December and avoid an early national election that would have to be held by early February if it does not.
“Conditions are difficult, Greek lawmakers are aware that the country cannot afford adventures,” he told reporters as he left the chamber.
A buoyant Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said the government’s “strategy of fear” had collapsed. “Democracy cannot be blackmailed,” he told reporters.
A second round of voting will be held on 23 December, and a possible final round on 29 December, when the threshold needed for victory falls to 180.
Costas Panagopoulos, a political analyst who heads the ALCO polling institute, said the result pointed to a period of intense backroom horsetrading between the government and independent deputies.
“It will be inextricably linked to a political deal, which does not only include trying to get a vote in favour but also other issues, such as probably a timetable for elections or even another candidate,” he said.
Syriza has been ahead of the government in opinion polls for months but its lead has shrunk in recent days, as the showdown in parliament has neared, bringing the prospect of weeks of instability.
Polls suggest that most Greek voters, weary after years of austerity, do not want early elections just as their battered economy is showing signs of revival.
Greece’s eurozone partners fear a victory by the anti-bailout party could trigger trouble in the currency bloc, although it is political fallout, rather than financial, that is foremost on their minds.
The final result of the parliamentary vote will depend on 24 independent lawmakers, as well as possible rebels among the small Democratic Left party, which quit the ruling coalition last year, and now has 10 deputies, and the right-wing Independent Greeks party, which has 12.
As manoeuvring continued, speculation grew over possible alternative proposals, including a deal that could involve a commitment by the government to hold elections later next year in exchange for support in the presidential vote.
Before the vote, Evangelos Venizelos, the leader of centre-left coalition partner PASOK, said he was ready to hold talks with opposition parties over possible concessions, saying “we are open to discussing everything”.
Fears of a new chapter of prolonged political uncertainty have sent Greek stocks and bonds crashing since Samaras last week announced the presidential vote would be held this month instead of February. Greek stocks fell over 20% in three days last week, while 10-year bond yields leapt over 9%.
Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen told EURACTIV Greece yesterday in Strasbourg that the EU executive “will respect democracy and is ready to cooperate with any government in Greece”.
MEP from Syriza Costas Schrysogonos commented that he is pleased that Katainen proclaims respect for the democratic choice of the Greek people. But he added that the Commission had to make proof of it in practice and show respect for a policy that would review the current “brutal austerity”.
Centre-right New Democracy MEP Giorgos Kyrtsos commented to EURACTIV Greece: “This [the statement by Vice President Katainen] is very positive. This should be the role of the European Commission. The democratically elected government though should acknowledge a continuity regarding the European strategy and obligations of the country”.
Greece exited a painful six-year recession this year and has tapped bond markets twice after a four-year exile, but investors have begun to fear a return to the days of crisis as the presidential vote looms. On 8 December, eurozone ministers decided to grant Greece a two-month extension to its bailout rather than settle for a six-month extension that Athens objected to, was a boost, giving the country just enough time to wrap up a delayed bailout review before it exits the programme for good.
Opinion polls show the leftist Syriza party would win if early elections were held right now.