GREEK Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras scrambled to keep his party in line Tuesday ahead of a fateful parliamentary vote that will determine whether his country is able to apply for a massive international bailout or goes bankrupt.
Tsipras sought to contain a revolt by rank-and-file members of his left-wing Syriza party who vow to reject a deal he cut with European leaders to save Athens from a chaotic default and certain banishment from the group of 19 nations that use the euro currency.
The deal allows Greece to put in a request for desperately needed rescue loans from its Eurozone partners, but only if lawmakers approve painful economic reforms, including more austerity cuts, tax increases and changes to the pension system, by the end of Wednesday. Syriza campaigned against such measures while in opposition, a stance reinforced by a public vote against more austerity in a referendum this month.
But after a grueling 17-hour negotiation session that ended Monday morning, Tsipras capitulated to demands for such policies from the other 18 Eurozone countries in exchange for a shot at a government bailout worth up to $96 billion.
Despite the tight deadline, most analysts say Tsipras should have little trouble securing parliamentary approval of an omnibus reform bill Wednesday. But he probably will have to depend on supportive votes by opposition politicians, which could severely weaken his government or, in the direst scenario, cost him his job.
In a 70-minute television interview Tuesday night, the Greek leader said he would not resign even if he lost support from some members of his party, because “a captain does not abandon ship during a storm.”
He described his agreement with his Eurozone counterparts as a “bad” deal, but said it was the best he could secure. He noted that it allowed for some restructuring of Greece’s crushing load of public debt and that it spared the country a disastrous exit from the euro and a return to the drachma.
“I tried in whatever way I could to come up with the best agreement possible,” Tsipras said. “We got to a point where there was nowhere further to go…. If we had gone to a messy default, we would have had to adopt a new currency, and we were not ready to support a national currency.”
Tsipras also said that the unyielding attitude of some of the creditor nations, particularly Germany, was unworthy of European Union ideals of solidarity and respect.
Tsipras’ coalition government holds 162 of the 300 seats in Parliament. By one count, as many as 30 Syriza lawmakers have spoken out against the agreement that Tsipras signed with European creditors, although it is unclear if they will defect in the Wednesday vote.
The dissidents say the measures being imposed on Greece will condemn the country to more years of misery and impoverishment, heaping austerity upon austerity in an economy already mired in depression.
“The deal … is unacceptable,” Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, a Syriza hard-liner, said in a statement.
He accused Germany, the main driver behind the agreement and Athens’ biggest lender, of treating Greece as a colony and using blackmail – the threat of expulsion from the Eurozone – to get Tsipras to accede to its demands.
An exit from the euro would be calamitous for Greece, at least in the short term. Athens would default on billions of dollars in debts, business would grind to a halt and Greeks could find their savings slashed with the introduction of a new currency.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, head of the right-wing Independent Greeks, the junior party in the ruling coalition, said the other Eurozone leaders were trying to engineer the fall of the Greek government by setting such intolerable conditions for their financial assistance.
“There was a coup – a coup in the heart of Europe,” Kammenos told reporters. “They want the government to fall and to replace it with one that hasn’t been voted on by the Greek people.”
If Tsipras succeeds in shepherding the omnibus bill through Parliament, the other Eurozone nations will open talks with him on a three-year bailout program that will almost certainly entail more difficult reforms, such as an overhaul of Greece’s inefficient labor market.
Those negotiations are likely to take several weeks. Eurozone finance ministers are now racing to find a way to provide Athens with funding in the interim, especially so that it can meet a large debt repayment to the European Central Bank next Monday. If Athens fails to make the payment, the central bank would probably be forced to cut the financial lifeline that is currently the only thing preventing Greece’s cash-starved banks from going under.
Greece has already missed two payments it owes the International Monetary Fund, becoming the first developed country to go into arrears in the fund’s history.