Stavros Dimas's chances look poor, while those of the anti-austerity left look good
FOR an election in which so much is at stake, the atmosphere in the first-round voting in Greece’s presidential election on December 17th was almost humdrum. As predicted, Stavros Dimas, the only candidate for the head of state’s largely ceremonial job, failed to gain the needed two-thirds majority, winning just 160 of Greece’s 300 parliamentary deputies. Mr Dimas's allies, including Evangelos Venizelos, the foreign minister (pictured), are growing worried. Should Mr Dimas’s backers fail to win over enough deputies by the third and final vote on December 29th, Greece must hold a snap general election. If current polls are to be believed, that could bring to power a radical left-wing government which would reopen the cursed issue of Greece’s public debt that first precipitated the euro crisis.
Mr Dimas could yet sneak through; all of the governing coalition’s 155 deputies supported him. But he attracted a disappointing five votes from the 24 unaffiliated lawmakers who could tip the balance in his favour. Political matchmakers from the centre-right New Democracy party of Antonis Samaras, the prime minister, and its coalition partner, Mr Venizelos's Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), must somehow put together 180 votes for Mr Dimas to be approved in the final round. In the corridors of parliament on Wednesday evening, even some centre-right deputies warned that they would fail, and that new elections were coming.
The presidential vote was initially scheduled for February, but Mr Samaras brought it forward, saying the hard-left Syriza party’s calls for an early election were damaging the country’s fragile recovery. Syriza’s promises of a moratorium on debt payments and an expansive fiscal policy have met with a chilly response in Brussels and Berlin, but they appeal to austerity-weary Greeks. Since coming first in last May’s European parliament elections, Syriza has kept a steady lead in opinion polls. Alexis Tsipras, the party’s firebrand leader, accuses Mr Samaras and the European Commission of using scare tactics against his party. After Wednesday’s vote, a smiling Mr Tsipras declared that “you can’t blackmail democracy”.
Backroom wheeling and dealing is rife. To scrape together a win for Mr Dimas, the government needs not just the independents (nine have vowed not to back Mr Samaras) but defections from two small parties, the moderate Democratic Left and the right-wing Independent Greeks. Recent polls suggest both parties would fail to win 3% of the vote at a general election, the threshold for entering parliament. Fotis Kouvelis, the Democratic Left leader, has sent ambiguous signals as to whether he will forgive any of his 10 deputies who decide to back Mr Dimas. But several Democratic Left deputies are reportedly negotiating behind the scenes for a place on Syriza’s electoral list.
Panos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks, insists his 12 MPs will vote against Mr Dimas in the final round. If the government falls, the consequences for Greece and for Europe could be dramatic. But some observers think this grave issue may be decided not by national interest or even party discipline, but by the self-interest of MPs in both splinter groups. If the government serves out the remaining 17 months of its term, lawmakers will be entitled to a significantly larger pension.