Polls to determine whether Greece stays in Europe: PM

Greece started counting down Tuesday to a snap election next month as the prime minister warned that the ballot will determine whether the crisis-hit country remains part of the eurozone.

Athens: Greece started counting down Tuesday to a snap election next month as the prime minister warned that the ballot will determine whether the crisis-hit country remains part of the eurozone.

"This struggle will determine whether Greece stays in Europe," Antonis Samaras said, as he asked the outgoing president to dissolve parliament ahead of an election set for January 25.

The looming ballot has already rattled markets and could revive fears of the country`s future in the eurozone.

It was called Monday after lawmakers failed in a third attempt to elect a successor to 85-year-old President Karolos Papoulias, whose five-year term ends in March.

The last election plunged Greece into weeks of political uncertainty and there are fears of a repeat next month given the close race between Samaras` New Democracy conservatives and Syriza, the anti-austerity radical leftists, who are slightly leading opinion polls.

"In an unprecedented twist, the new parliament could elect a president and be dissolved again for new elections (immediately afterwards) if a government cannot be formed," wrote liberal Kathimerini daily Tuesday.

"The elections nobody wanted, held in a climate of uncertainty," said centre-left Ta Nea daily.

Avgi, the Syriza party daily, said a leftist government would give "hope to the peoples of Europe and nightmares to the elites oppressing them."

If Syriza were to win they would still need to form a coalition and tone down some of their rhetoric to find a partner, according to Manos Papazoglou, a professor of political science at the University of the Peloponnese.

"Syriza will have to move towards the centre," Papazoglou told AFP.

It also remained unclear who the prospective coalition allies would be, as a handful of small parties are vying for parliament.

These include the recently-formed centrist party To Potami (The River), led by a former journalist, and there are rumours that former prime minister George Papandreou is about to form a party.

Greek stocks closed down almost four percent on Monday -- having lost a massive 11 percent earlier -- amid fears that Syriza could roll back austerity measures if it wins the election.

The bourse opened with a fresh 0.51-percent drop on Tuesday.Syriza had dismissed warnings that its electoral programme could shake the markets but, within hours of the election call on Monday, the International Monetary Fund said it was suspending further bailout payments to Greece until a new government was formed.

"Discussions... will resume once a new government is in place, in consultation with the European Commission and the European Central Bank," said IMF spokesman Gerry Rice.

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

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

"This is the beginning of the end of a regime that plunged Greece into poverty, unemployment, misery and despair," Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras told supporters on Monday, promising a "real negotiation" with the country`s EU creditors.

The European Union has called on Greeks to stick by the often painful reforms adopted as part of a massive international bailout for the eurozone member state.

"A strong commitment to Europe and broad support among the Greek voters and political leaders for the necessary growth-friendly reform process will be essential for Greece to thrive again within the euro area," EU economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici said.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has warned the cash-strapped country not to abandon the agreed economic reforms, saying: "they have no alternative".

Ratings agency Fitch warned Tuesday that political uncertainty would likely remain for some months after the elections.