By Daniel Bases and Dina Kyriakidou
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Greece's coalition government may propose a non-political figure for president in March to seek consensus and avoid snap elections that could derail its economic progress, Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos told Reuters on Tuesday.
Although the Greek president's role is largely ceremonial, failure by parliament to elect one would force early national elections with no likely outright winner, plunging Greece into a political crisis a few years after narrowly avoiding default.
Venizelos, who is also Foreign Minister, said in an interview that the government was open to candidates who may not be politicians but in the field of academics or even culture, breaking with a decades-long tradition.
"The list for president is very limited," Venizelos said in New York where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly. He did not disclose names for candidates to replace incumbent Karolos Papoulias whose five-year term ends in March. "We have some scenarios but we are absolutely open."
If parliament elects a non-politician, it would be the first time since 1985, when the late socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou proposed a supreme court judge for the job.
But Greece's 300-seat house is too fragmented to easily come up with the 180 votes needed to elect a president. The ruling coalition of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' conservative New Democracy and Venizelos' socialist PASOK party has 154 seats.
Venizelos said they would need to convince 26 deputies from other parties to back the government's choice.
"I’m optimistic because public opinion ... is against the idea of premature elections. The large majority of public opinion understands very well the need to protect the political, governmental stability," he said.
Opinion polls also show that no party could win outright if elections are held now. New Democracy is seen garnering about 22 percent, behind the radical left main opposition SYRIZA, which has 71 seats in parliament, and leads polls with 26 percent.
"It’s not possible to form a one-party government. It’s absolutely vital to prepare a coalition," Venizelos said.
But coalitions will be even harder to forge with PASOK's power diminished for backing waves of austerity measures to satisfy the international lenders who pulled Greece back from the brink of bankruptcy in 2010.
After six years of recession marked by strikes and violent protests, Greece returned to the debt markets and is expecting to report a primary surplus this year. It hopes for an early end to the emergency program and austerity measures.
Athens expects to reach agreement on additional debt relief late this year, which it hopes will be Greece's final step towards funding itself without outside help.
A major hurdle in its path is the political instability stemming from the president's election, a process Venizelos said needs to begin in early February. Venizelos said parties and deputies must weigh the gravity of the situation.
"The nationally right option is to protect the stability and to elect the new president as a result of a consensual process," Venizelos said.
(Additional reporting by Dayan Candappa and Ross Colvin; Writing by Dina Kyriakidou)