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Greece set for early elections after failure to choose president

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Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Monday called for an early election on January 25 that could bring a radical anti-austerity party to power after parliament failed for a third time to elect a president.

[ATHENS] Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Monday called for an early election on January 25 that could bring a radical anti-austerity party to power after parliament failed for a third time to elect a president.

The snap election is likely to further rattle the economy and financial markets after Greece's dire finances nearly destroyed the eurozone in 2012.

The government's candidate, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, won 168 votes out of 180 needed and under the constitution, parliament will have to be dissolved in the next 10 days.

Greek stocks plunged 11 per cent after the vote, with fears that the front-running anti-austerity Syriza party could undo many of Greece's economic reforms if it wins the election.

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"Tomorrow I will visit the president and request...that elections be held as soon as possible, on January 25," Samaras said in a televised address after the parliamentary vote.

In recent days, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble have warned the Greeks not to change course and abandon the reforms.

The European Union and the International Monetary Fund have overseen two massive international bailouts for Greece after its debt crisis nearly destroyed the eurozone.

But even after the rescue packages worth 240 billion euros (US$290 billion) and most of the debt held by private investors being wiped out, the economy has only just begun to recover after six years of contraction.

"The opposition today forced early elections at the worst possible time for the country's economy," conservative lawmaker Dora Bakoyannis said after the vote.

Opinion polls show Samaras's ruling coalition trailing Syriza, which wants to renegotiate the conditions of the bailout and roll back unpopular austerity measures imposed by the international creditors.

But Syriza's lead has narrowed to 3.3 per cent from 3.6 per cent in early December, according to a survey by the Alco polling institute for Proto Thema newspaper, indicating the party would not have a clear majority to form a government on its own if polls were held now.

Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras vowed to end austerity after Monday's vote.

"With the will of our people, in a few days the bailout agreements of austerity will be history," Mr Tsipras told reporters.

The looming political stalemate, as well as Syriza's political agenda, prompted Mr Schaeuble to warn on Saturday that any new government must respect commitments made by its predecessor.

The reforms required by the creditors have improved the government's finances but have taken a heavy toll on Greeks as unemployment has soared above 27 per cent and many people have had wages and benefits cut.

Syriza, which declined to vote in the presidential election in order to force snap polls, wants to raise salaries and pensions, halt layoffs and freeze the privatisation of state assets - key elements of reforms demanded by creditors.

Greece recently secured a two-month extension from its EU-IMF creditors to conclude an ongoing fiscal audit that will determine the release of some 7.0 billion euros (US$8.6 billion) in loans. This extension expires in February.

The third and final round of voting to choose a successor to President Karolos Papoulias came after 11th hour efforts by Samaras failed to get the government candidate elected.

AFP

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