M. Continuo

Greek PM Samaras falls short in first round presidential vote

By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek lawmakers failed to elect a new president in a first round of voting on Wednesday, leaving Prime Minister Antonis Samaras still looking for as many as 20 votes from independents and small parties to avoid snap national 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.

Greek media had speculated 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 Dec. 23 and Dec. 29 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 Dec. 23 and a possible final round on Dec. 29, 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 euro zone 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 percent in three days last week while 10-year bond yields leapt over 9 percent.

(Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos and Angeliki Koutantou; Writing by Deepa Babington and James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Roche)