Greece to call May 6 snap election
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece will call a snap election for May 6 on Wednesday, government officials said, opening a campaign that may produce no clear result and threaten implementation of the international bailout plan that saved Athens from bankruptcy.
The election will be the first since the debt crisis exploded at the end of 2009, dragging the country into its worst recession since World War II, pushing unemployment to record highs and shaking the euro.
The conservative New Democracy and the Socialist PASOK parties - which have backed the interim government of technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos - have lost public support for endorsing the bailout plan which demands harsh austerity, and may not win enough votes to form a new coalition.
Opinion polls show that small parties which oppose the steep wage and pension cuts imposed by the European Union and IMF in return for aid are gaining ground.
Papademos, who took office last year with the aim of securing the new bailout, will ask President Karolos Papoulias to call the election and dissolve parliament, his office said in a statement. They will meet at 1400 GMT, following a cabinet meeting expected to start at 1200 GMT with the snap polls as the top item on its agenda
A government official told Reuters: "The date of the election will be May 6."
Officials have been saying for days that voters would go to the polls on the first Sunday of May, after Papademos's emergency government completed its mandate by clinching the new EU/IMF rescue deal and a landmark debt restructuring.
"Elections, it now seems, will take place on May 6," Health Minister Andreas Loverdos told parliament.
The Papademos cabinet will also discuss on Wednesday how to boost the capital of Greece's cash-strapped banks, a vital condition for the country's economic recovery.
Party leaders have already unofficially started the campaign, with conservative leader Antonis Samaras, whose party is ahead in all opinion polls, telling supporters over the weekend that he would raise low pensions and create jobs.
Recent opinion polls show his party would win between 18 and 25 percent of the vote, ahead of PASOK's 11-16 percent but far behind the socialists' sweeping 43.9 percent in the pre-crisis election of October 2009.
Samaras has said repeatedly, however, that he is aiming for an outright majority and has warned that he might trigger a repeat election if he does not get enough votes.
"I am entering the field, just as all big teams do, to win. Not to get a tie, not to lose," he told Mega TV on Monday. "And if a government cannot be formed ... we will have to go again to elections."
Some surveys cast doubt on whether the only two parties that back the bailout can gather enough votes to renew their coalition, although this is still considered the most likely outcome.
Both New Democracy and PASOK back EU/IMF reforms such as opening up of closed professions, slashing the public sector workforce by a fifth and cutting pensions, but Samaras said he would renegotiate some parts of the plan.
Whoever wins the election will have to agree additional spending cuts of 5.5 percent of GDP - or about 11 billion euros - for 2013-2014 and gather about another 3 billion euros from better tax collection to keep getting aid, the IMF has said.
The Fund has warned that the election is posing a political risk, casting doubt on the implementation of agreed policies.
Parliament approved on Monday a grant of nearly 30 million euros to fund its cash-strapped political parties, in a vote that split lawmakers and triggered some criticism in the recession-hit country and abroad.
"Don't you think that when most Greek citizens are facing severe cutbacks, facing unemployment and significant reduction in their income, that the same should also apply to politicians?" Guy Verhofstadt, head of the European Liberal parties, said in a letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
In a move that may appease some frustrated voters, a former defence minister was arrested on money laundering charges on Wednesday.
Television showed images of plainclothes police leading Akis Tsohatzopoulos, 72, away from his luxurious neo-classical mansion at the foot of the Athens Acropolis. His purchase of the house prompted an investigation.
Tsohatzopoulos, who has held various portfolios including defence since the 1980s, faces felony charges in relation to property deals and possible tax violations, a court official said on condition of anonymity. He has denied any wrongdoing.
(Additional reporting by Tatiana Fragou; editing by David Stamp)
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