Samaras appeals to lawmakers’ principles and pocketbooks

With his choice for the presidency, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras made an appeal to Greek conservatives — and to the self interest of opposition lawmakers.

Nominating Stavros Dimas, a 73-year-old former European commissioner, offers conservatives in the 300-seat parliament a candidate in line with their values, and gives Samaras a chance of staying in office.

It also gives those members concerned that the rise of anti-austerity SYRIZA party could cost them their jobs a reason to side with the government, said Aristides Hatzis, an associate professor of law and economics at the University of Athens. Samaras will have to dissolve parliament unless he can muster the support of 180 lawmakers for Dimas.

“Many of these guys were elected in 2012 for the first time,” Hatzis said by phone yesterday. “And it will probably be the last time.”

Four years of austerity under the scrutiny of the troika have pushed Greek unemployment to 26 percent, the highest in the European Union, and stripped away many of the opportunities in the private sector that provide a safety net for politicians in many countries. If Samaras can get Dimas elected, the current parliament may survive into 2016.

Markets plunged yesterday on concern that the presidential vote may bring SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras to power with a mandate to roll back the budget cuts Samaras has pushed through. Greek stocks fell the most since 1987 while three-year bond yields jumped above the rate on 10-year debt.

Serious compromises

The prime minister is trying to outmaneuver Tsipras by forcing the pace of the vote on a new president. In calling the vote before he’s reached a deal over Greece’s status once the bailout program ends, the prime minister leaves a potential SYRIZA government to decide whether to stomach the troika’s demands.

“He’s telling Tsipras, ‘you either consent to the election of a president or you’ll end up in a situation in which you’ll have to make serious compromises,’”said Daphne Halikiopoulou, a lecturer in comparative European politics at the University of Reading in southern England.

Under Greece’s constitution, Samaras needs recruit at least 25 lawmakers to add to the coalitions 155 to elect a successor to President Karolos Papoulias.

The prime minister has two main groups where he can try to break off dissenters to support his cause. Independent Greeks, a party set up two years ago by dissidents from Samaras’s New Democracy, has 12 lawmakers. Another 24 aren’t affiliated to any party.

Targeting conservatives

As a New Democracy insider, Dimas may be able to win over lawmakers who have left Samaras’s party to become independents, or joined Independent Greeks, Halikiopoulou said.

“The parliament has many conservative lawmakers which do not caucus with New Democracy” she said. “The choice of Dimas is targeted at them.”

Samaras’s nominee was elected to parliament on New Democracy’s ticket in 10 consecutive elections between 1977 and 2004. Between November 2011 and May 2012, he served as foreign minister in Prime Minister Lucas Papademos’s interim government.

Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos has said his party will not support any candidate for the presidency. But he may not be able to enforce that line across his party. Panagiotis Melas, a lawmaker who used to belong to New Democracy, left Independent Greeks last week following a quarrel with Kammenos on whether he could support a presidential candidate.

Independent lawmakers may also feel that their seats are most at risk if Tsipras can defeat Samaras’s candidate and force him to dissolve parliament, according to Hatzis.

“The main reason an independent lawmaker, or one from the smaller parties, might vote for Dimas is to stay in parliament,” Hatzis said by phone.

Three chances

Some independent lawmakers have already said they will not support any candidate nominated by Samaras.

“It is time for lawmakers to assume their responsibilities,” Rachel Makri, an independent who also left Kammenos’s party this year, said in an interview. “Lawmakers can’t be blackmailed. I will not vote for the presidential candidate.”

Samaras has three chances to get his candidate through. In the first vote on Dec. 17, Dimas needs 200 votes. A second vote, with the same parameters, is set for Dec. 23. The last vote, in which the threshold falls to 180, is due on Dec. 29.

An early election to form a new parliament would take place at least three weeks after the final presidential vote. SYRIZA led Samaras’s New Democracy by 4 percentage points in the latest opinion poll. [Bloomberg]