ATHENS – With growing prospects that the election of a new Greek President in February, 2015 could be blocked by the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the country’s ruling parties reportedly are considering proposing a candidate who isn’t a retread politician.
The idea – first recommended by the new anti-politician To Potami (The River) party leader Stavros Theodorakis – was snapped up by Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos, the leader of the PASOK Socialists who are partners in the coalition headed by Premier and New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras.
SYRIZA, which is opposed to the austerity measures the government has imposed on orders of international lenders, said it would try to block any candidate from New Democracy-PASOK, which would force early national elections and could precipitate another financial crisis for a country just beginning to recover from a crushing economic debacle.
It takes 180 votes in Parliament to name a President, a symbolic office usually headed by a former politician acceptable to a broad base of parties and not from the rulers, although New Democracy figures want someone from their party to also hold the post.
New Democracy has 126 seats and PASOK 28 for a total of 54 and Samaras is keen to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to muster another 26 votes to get its candidate accepted, opening the door for SYRIZA, which has taken a growing lead in surveys.
Venizelos told Reuters in an interview that the government was open to candidates who may not be politicians but in the field of academics or even culture, breaking with a decades-long tradition.
“The list for President is very limited,” Venizelos said in New York where he was attending the UN General Assembly. He did not disclose names for candidates to replace incumbent Karolos Papoulias whose five-year term ends in March. “We have some scenarios but we are absolutely open.”
It had been reported that the ruling parties were first considering Fotis Kouvelis, leader of the Democratic Left (DIMAR) party that was in the coalition before leaving last year after refusing to back the firing of all 2,653 workers at the now-defunct national broadcaster ERT, which Venizelos did.
But DIMAR has slipped to to barely above 1 percent in polls, making Kouvelis a fading figure in Greek politics and one who is being challenged even within his own party after taking it into last place among those in Parliament.
If Parliament elects a non-politician, it would be the first time since 1985, when the late socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou proposed a Supreme Court judge for the job.
Venizelos said they would need to convince 26 deputies from other parties to back the government’s choice.
“I’m optimistic because public opinion … is against the idea of premature elections. The large majority of public opinion understands very well the need to protect the political, governmental stability,” he said, although New Democracy and PASOK combined had only about 26 percent in a recent survey.
PASOK is now a member of the new ELIA (Olive Tree) group, which it joined to avoid near extinction after voters abandoned the Socialists for backing pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings that are antithetical to its principles.
Opinion polls also show that no party could win outright if elections are held now. New Democracy is seen garnering about 20-22 percent, behind the radical left main opposition SYRIZA, which has 71 seats in parliament, and leads polls with 26 percent.
“It’s not possible to form a one-party government. It’s absolutely vital to prepare a coalition,” Venizelos said.
After six years of recession marked by strikes and violent protests, Greece returned to the debt markets and is expecting to report a primary surplus this year. It hopes for an early exit from its 240 billion euros ($317) twin-bailout deals from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB).
But to do that, Greece also needs the Troika to agree to some kind of debt relief, primarily lower interest rates and a longer time to repay, although the government had hoped to walk away from a large chunk of what it owes, forcing the bill onto the other 17 countries of the Eurozone.
Athens expects to reach agreement on additional debt relief late this year, which it hopes will be Greece’s final step towards funding itself without outside help.
A major hurdle in its path is the political instability stemming from the President’s election, a process Venizelos said needs to begin in early February. Venizelos said parties and deputies must weigh the gravity of the situation.
“The nationally right option is to protect the stability and to elect the new President as a result of a consensual process,” Venizelos said, despite the lack of support for the ruling parties.