ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said on Tuesday he hoped to avoid a snap general election next year after an improved result for his candidate in the second round of a parliamentary vote to elect a new president.
As expected, Greek lawmakers failed to reach a majority in favor of Samaras's candidate, Stavros Dimas, but an improved total from the first round left government lawmakers more optimistic before the decisive final round on Dec. 29.
Dimas won 168 votes in the 300-seat parliament, 12 short of the 180 he will need to be elected next week. It was eight more than he scored in the first ballot last week.
If he misses the threshold, snap elections will be held, potentially handing power to the left-wing Syriza party which wants to renegotiate Greece's 240 billion euro ($292 billion) international bailout and roll back the austerity policies of recent years.
The risk of renewed political instability in Greece, just as it is starting to emerge from a debt crisis that called into question the survival of the shared euro currency, is worrying its European Union partners.
Samaras, who has offered to broaden his government and hold elections late next year, said he was hopeful and expected lawmakers would assume responsibility for "the consequences their vote will have on stability and the country's future."
Opinion polls show most Greeks do not want snap elections, and in the corridors of parliament the mood among deputies in the ruling coalition was visibly improved. But the outcome remains finely balanced.
"It is certainly a better result but not sufficient," Education Minister Andreas Loverdos told Reuters. He cautioned that talks between parties would have to be fully transparent to avoid any suggestion of illicit deal-making following allegations of attempted bribery last week.
However Syriza said it was confident Samaras would fall short. "The government cannot get the 180 votes it needs, which means we will have early elections. The people of Greece will speak," party official Yannis Balafas said.
Greek stocks trimmed losses after the vote, with the main Athens index trading 1.6 percent lower.
Among independents and smaller parties, where the government must find the extra votes, a complicated game of political poker has already begun.
Both the Democratic Left, which quit the ruling coalition last year, and Independent Greeks, a right-wing anti-bailout party, have said they would not vote for Dimas.
But it is unclear how much discipline they can impose. A furious round of lobbying is likely over Christmas, with both government and opposition trying to shore up their positions, with half an eye on possible alliances after any election.
Financial markets and Greece's European partners have been watching Athens closely, although after the crisis measures of the past two years, most analysts believe there is less risk of contagion, with most Greek debt held by official creditors.
Syriza leader Alexis Tspiras, who has struck a more moderate tone, promising to keep Greece in the euro, said elections in the new year would allow Greece to "turn a new page".
The party still leads in opinion polls but its advantage has narrowed over recent weeks. A survey on Saturday gave it a 3.4 point lead.
($1 = 0.8205 euros)
Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and George Georgiopoulos; Writing by James Mackenzie Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Mark Trevelyan