Political storm in debt-laden Greece over MP bribery claims

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (above) said he would sue a popular comedian-turned-lawmaker who claimed he was offered money to help rig the presidential vote, allegedly on the premier's orders. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (above) said he would sue a popular comedian-turned-lawmaker who claimed he was offered money to help rig the presidential vote, allegedly on the premier's orders. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (AFP) - Claims of attempted bribery in a critical presidential vote have stirred a political storm in debt-laden Greece ahead of a tense parliamentary ballot to elect a head of state.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said he would sue a popular comedian-turned-lawmaker who claimed he was offered money to help rig the presidential vote, allegedly on the premier's orders.

Failure to elect a new president by the end of December will usher in early general elections in Greece, a prospect that could reverse fiscal reforms.

This has sparked alarm in international markets and with the country's EU-IMF creditors.

The controversy erupted on Friday when Pavlos Haikalis, a comedian and lawmaker of the small nationalist Independent Greeks party, said a former bank employee had offered him 2-3 million euros (S$3.2-4.8 million) to vote for the government's candidate.

Events quickly snowballed with Haikalis later telling Mega TV station that the middleman was allegedly "acting on behalf" of Samaras and a banker, and the PM hitting back with a slander lawsuit.

Fuelling the turmoil, two independent lawmakers rumoured to be close to radical leftist party Syriza insinuated that other colleagues had been bribed.

"A shadow of bribery allegations... hangs over the presidential vote," they said in a statement.

Parliament on Saturday asked the Supreme Court to hasten the investigation into the case as newspapers bemoaned the deteriorating state of the country's political scene.

"Political life in a deep morass," lamented centre-left Ethnos daily, while liberal Kathimerini said the political climate was "dangerously" heating up ahead of the follow-up vote on Tuesday.

"The accusation... could derail a looming pre-election period and rent apart political parties, fuelling insecurity," argued centre-left Ta Nea daily.

ELECTIONS IN A 'JUNGLE'

Former conservative prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis also warned on Friday that the elections "risked being held in a jungle atmosphere."

In the first round of the presidential vote on Wednesday, the government presidential candidate - former EU commissioner Stavros Dimas - mustered 160 parliamentary votes out of the required 200.

A total of 200 votes are again required in a second vote on Tuesday. The bar lowers to 180 votes in a third and final vote on Dec 29.

European Union and International Monetary Fund officials fear an early election - which could be held as early as Jan 25 - would be won by radical leftist party Syriza and undo the country's ongoing fiscal reforms.

Syriza has declined to front a candidate for president.

The leftists want to raise salaries and pensions, halt layoffs and freeze privatisation of state assets - all of them key elements of reforms demanded by Greece's creditors.

The looming political stalemate has alarmed international markets, pushing up the yield of Greek bonds and prompting EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to recently warn the nation against delivering the "wrong" election result.

In 2012, back-to-back elections were needed in May and June to form a shaky coalition government, stalling Greece's fiscal reforms and sparking speculation that the country was about to be ejected from the eurozone.

The Independent Greeks party recently claimed that another of its deputies had been offered money to help elect a president, but an investigation found insufficient evidence to press charges.