ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras offered on Sunday to bring pro-European independents into the government and hold new elections in late 2015 if lawmakers back him to elect a new president.
Speaking in an unscheduled television address, Samaras said Greece had a duty to complete negotiations with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to exit its bailout accord next year.
But he said he would be willing to widen his ruling conservative/center-left coalition if lawmakers agreed to elect the government's candidate Stavros Dimas as president.
The surprise announcement comes two days ahead of the second round of voting for president and follows a disappointing result for the government in the first round last week when it won less support than expected.
The head of state is a largely ceremonial post but if the 300-member parliament does not choose a president by the third vote on Dec. 29, elections will have to be held by early February, putting negotiations over Greece's bailout at risk.
Samaras still needs to win over another 20 votes to avoid an election. He is targeting two dozen independents and 22 deputies from two smaller parties, Democratic Left and the right-wing Independent Greeks, both of which say they want a general election.
With financial markets watching developments in Greece closely, he urged deputies to listen to "the voice of national interest and common sense" to allow bailout talks to wrap up.
"Then, shielded economically and politically, we can find a suitable timeframe for national elections even at the end of 2015," he said. The election would otherwise be due in 2016.
Vassilis Economou, a pro-European independent whose intentions were being closely watched, welcomed the offer and called on other independents to back the government.
Of the smaller parties, the Independent Greeks rejected the offer, while Democratic Left, which quit the coalition last year, said it would consider its response at a meeting on Monday.
Syriza, the leftwing opposition party which wants to renegotiate the bailout and which is favored to win if an early vote is held, was scornful of Samaras's attempts to put off an election: "Mr Samaras does not want to face the judgment of the Greek people," Syriza spokesman Panos Skourletis said.
Syriza has seen its opinion poll advantage narrow over the past few weeks but it still leads by 3.4 points according to the latest poll on Saturday.
Dimas received 160 votes in the first round in the 300-seat parliament. A candidate for president requires 200 votes to win in either the first or second round, but the threshold drops to 180 votes for the third, final round.
While Dimas is seen as unlikely to be elected in the second round, the government hopes to improve his result, making it more likely that he can win in the final round next week.
Chances of a deal have been clouded by allegations by an Independent Greek lawmaker last week that he was offered a bribe worth up to 3 million euros to vote for Dimas.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Peter Graff