ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras comfortably won a confidence vote aimed at rallying support for his plan to abandon a widely-reviled EU/IMF aid package and ending speculation that his government is on its last legs.
Having endured party defections, riots and various government crises in his nearly two and half years in office, Samaras could face the prospect of snap polls if he fails to push through his candidate in a presidential election in early 2015.
The confidence vote is an effort by Samaras to show Athens is determined to avoid early elections and force grumbling lawmakers into publicly backing him, allowing him to present a united front at negotiations with EU/IMF lenders on exiting a 240-billion-euro ($300-billion) bailout a year early.
“The only thing that seems to be worrying markets now is the so-called political risk, which means whether the political stability which we restored will be maintained,” Samaras said. “With this vote of confidence we are cementing this stability.”
All 155 lawmakers from Samaras’s New Democracy and Socialist PASOK parties backed the government in the 300-seat parliament early on Saturday. Samaras’s parliamentary support rose to 155 deputies after a rebel lawmaker returned to the conservative fold on Thursday.
The confidence vote, in effect, sets in motion a frenetic government campaign to woo independent and some opposition lawmakers ahead of the presidential election in February.
Samaras needs the support of 180 lawmakers to secure victory for his candidate for president, which the second-largest party in parliament - the radical-leftist Syriza party - and other small anti-bailout parties have promised to block.
Under Greek law, parliament must be dissolved and elections called if it cannot elect a president. Opinion polls say Syriza would almost certainly win an early ballot, and its leader Alexis Tsipras repeated an impassioned call for new elections.
“Tonight, when the lights in this room go out, we will all see that this confidence is far from the 180 deputies needed for a president to be elected,” Tsipras said in parliament, turning down an invitation to back the coalition.
In a warning to Samaras’s government that is set to begin crucial talks on debt relief, reforms and funding, Tsipras said Syriza would not respect prior decisions when it comes to power.
“Don’t make crucial moves, don’t proceed with crucial negotiations or decisions which will bind future governments without the consent of the party that ranks first,” he said.
“I‘m saying this again, not only to you but so that it’s also heard in Brussels, Berlin and Washington: decisions or agreements made without our consent will not be accepted, they won’t be binding for Syriza.”
Samaras is gambling that ditching the bailout and its hated austerity measures will help lure anti-bailout lawmakers to back him during the presidential vote. But investors fear quitting the bailout in 2015 - a year ahead of schedule - would expose Greece to bond market volatility and could mean a derailing of reform efforts promised under the current aid package.
Greek officials including the finance minister are due to meet IMF chief Christine Lagarde in Washington, where they are likely to discuss plans for the bailout exit and debt relief.
Speaking in parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos said the government aimed to ditch the bailout early by completing EU-wide bank stress tests, winning debt relief and securing the support of EU partners for the exit. He stressed the need for upgrades from ratings agencies on Greek debt.
Tsipras mocked the government’s plans to end the bailout after vigorously defending it over the years.
“Weren’t you the ones who said that even if the (EU/IMF) troika hadn’t brought the bailout, we would have had to create one for ourselves? That the bailout is pulling us out of the crisis? How come you’ve become anti-bailout?,” Tsipras said.
Writing by Deepa Babington