ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Greece’s government was forced Monday to call early national elections, stoking financial concerns as investors worry the main opposition party will win – and want to renege on the country’s bailout deal.
The stock market closed 3.9 percent lower, recovering from an earlier 11.3 percent plunge on news of the election, which was triggered by parliament’s failure to elect a new president. European markets also fell, with the Euro Stoxx index down 0.6 percent.
Investors fear the left-wing opposition Syriza party, which has a narrow but steady lead in opinion polls, might act on popular resentment over six years of government austerity by seeking to overhaul the international bailout deal.
At the height of the eurozone crisis in 2010-2012, Greece’s financial turmoil risked breaking up the currency union, an event which would have shaken the global economy.
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The risks today are not as great, analysts say. For one, little of Greece’s debt is held by private investors around the world, but mainly its bailout creditors, the International Monetary Fund and other eurozone countries.
Also, the European Union and European Central Bank now have programs meant to stabilize markets and support confidence in eurozone markets.
“Due to the policy advances made, the safeguards that have been put in place and the (European Central Bank’s) stated public commitment to doing whatever is necessary to keep the eurozone together, events in Greece now pose much less of a threat to the eurozone” than a few years ago, IHS Global Insight economist Howard Archer said in a note.
However, should a new government seek changes to the deal, Greece’s access to credit would be delayed just as its bailout loans are coming to an end. Greece still cannot finance itself independently on bond markets, so it faces the danger of a default that could hurt the finances of fellow European countries.
The IMF said Monday the current bailout review – upon which depends the payment of the next batch of rescue loans – will resume only after the new government is in place. It said Athens faces no immediate financing needs, however. The review has been stalled for months due to disagreements on new spending cuts.
Greek conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said national elections, the fourth in six fraught years of financial crisis, will be held “at the soonest possible date” – Sunday, Jan. 25, 18 months early.
“The country has no time to waste,” Samaras said in a televised address after the presidential vote. “The people must learn the truth about how easy it is to relapse into the deepest and most dramatic crisis.”
In the presidential vote, his coalition’s candidate for the post, 73-year-old former European commissioner Stavros Dimas, garnered 168 out of 300 possible votes– short of the 180 needed to win. It was the third and final round of voting. According to the constitution, the vote’s failure means parliament has to be dissolved within 10 days.
Syriza has pledged to roll back some of the reforms Greece implemented to qualify for 240 billion euros in rescue funds. But it has recently softened its rhetoric about unilaterally pulling out of the bailout deal.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said Monday’s vote marked a “historic day for Greek democracy.”
“Today Mr. Samaras’ government, which for two and a half years plundered our society and had already decided and committed to take new (austerity) measures, belongs to the past,” Tsipras said. “With the will of our people, in a few days, the austerity agreements will also belong to the past.”
Commenting on the elections, European Finance Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said a “strong commitment to Europe” and backing for reforms will be “essential for Greece to thrive again within the euro area.”
Greece lost market confidence and nearly went bankrupt in 2010, after years of profligate spending, dodging public sector reforms and hiding the extent of its bloated public deficit and debt.
The EU-IMF bailouts kept the country afloat, but drastic belt-tightening demanded by creditors hammered incomes and living conditions, sending unemployment to a post-World War II high. Ensuing resentment fuelled support for anti-austerity parties, from Syriza – whose pre-crisis support was under 5 percent – to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.
Samaras, 63, presided over a historic coalition that united his conservative party with their historic socialist rivals to hammer out further draconian spending cuts that balanced the budget after decades and led to a modest economic recovery this year.
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this report.