Numbers tight for Greek PM Samaras ahead of crucial vote

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called for support on Wednesday ahead of a tight parliamentary vote that will trigger elections unless he can win backing from independents and smaller parties that have so far rejected helping his coalition.

Two key small parties — Democratic Left, which quit the government last year, and the right-wing, anti-austerity Independent Greeks — repeated their opposition hours before the 300 lawmakers in parliament begin the first of three votes to elect a new president. Voting begins at 7.00 p.m.

Samaras, whose conservative/center-left coalition has 155 deputies in parliament, must secure at least 25 votes from the smaller parties and unattached independents for the super majority needed to elect his candidate Stavros Dimas.

The prime minister’s office issued a statement saying the vote was not about his government but about defending the constitution and respecting the office of president.

“It is also to avoid a political adventure that could prove fatal for the country’s European course,” it said.

The government is not expected to win Wednesday’s vote or a second ballot on Dec. 23, when it would have to secure 200 votes to win but voting will be closely watched as a sign of momentum before a deciding final round on Dec. 29, when the required super majority drops to 180.

“If we can manage to get over 160 in favor of our candidate (on Wednesday), it will be a positive first step,” Defense Minister Nikos Dendias told Star TV.

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, which polls show would probably be won by the radical leftist SYRIZA party that promises to axe the bailout program Greece depends on to keep afloat.

Greece’s eurozone partners are wary that such a result could trigger trouble in the currency bloc, although it is political fallout rather than financial that is foremost on their minds

Both sides in parliament are battling to win over a pool of about two dozen independent lawmakers whose votes will decide the outcome. Of these, seven have said they will support Samaras and eight have declared against, at least in the initial rounds.

To make up the shortfall, Samaras would also need the support of at least a few lawmakers from Democratic Left, which has 10 deputies and the Independent Greeks, which said on Wednesday that all 12 of its members would vote against the government in all three rounds.

Earlier this week, Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis, who has already made clear he would oppose the government, had offered some prospect of accommodation, saying he would not consider it a “betrayal” if individual members voted in favor.

On Wednesday he struck a harder line, telling SKAI Television all 10 lawmakers would withhold support to enable Greece “to move toward elections.” However it is unclear whether all the deputies will follow party orders or vote with their conscience as some have said they would.

Underlining the drama of the occasion, seven lawmakers from the far-right Golden Dawn party currently in jail pending trial on charges of being members of a criminal association, will be allowed to attend parliament to vote.

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 percent in three days last week while 10-year bond yields leapt over 9 percent.

Samaras has warned of a “catastrophic” return to the height of Greece’s debt crisis — when it risked being driven out of the euro zone — if his government falls, while SYRIZA has accused him of scare-mongering and blackmail to win support.