George Papandreou waits on result of confidence vote as Greek politicians face pressure to force €130bn bailout deal through
Helena Smith in Athens
guardian.co.uk, Friday 4 November 2011 20.46 GMT
Greece’s deepening economic and political crisis was hanging on a confidence vote in the beleaguered government of George Papandreou as the near-bankrupt nation continued to reel from its leader’s shock attempt to hold a referendum over the latest package of international aid for the country.
Before the midnight ballot consensus was growing that Papandreou was likely to scrape through the vote following his decision to ditch the plebiscite, after a dressing-down by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel. He has a parliamentary majority of just two.
However, the prime minister could quit regardless of the outcome. The conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras has ruled out participating in a transition government if Papandreou is in it. Papandreou, meanwhile, has pledged to quit for the sake of unity.
As parliamentarians filed into the 300-seat house to participate in a debate on the confidence motion, thousands of communist anti-austerity protesters gathered outside. Addressing the crowd, communist party leader Aleka Papariga warned that whatever government emerged in the coming days would face the wrath of the people if it dared to pass more belt-tightening measures.
With members of his own Pasok party demanding that Papandreou resign, the embattled politician could announce the formation of a national salvation government possibly as early as Saturday.
“I do not want to humiliate my party’s president – the country’s prime minister – by toppling him tonight,” said veteran lawmaker Telemachos Hytiris.
“But I want him to rise to the occasion as a prime minister who has won the vote of confidence with prestige and start discussions tomorrow on a unity government so the country can move forward.”
A coalition government is widely seen as the only way of bringing Greece back from the brink as it struggles to contain the fallout from the prime minister’s ill-fated decision to call the popular vote on Monday.
The move, an extraordinary high-stakes gamble by a prime minister determined to achieve “greater consensus” for the severe austerity measures demanded in return for aid, backfired dramatically with EU leaders wondering whether Greece wanted to stay in the eurozone and global markets gyrating wildly on fears of the instability a no vote would bring.
“It is essential that a transitional government is formed to prevent the country slipping into ungovernability,” said Christos Protopappas who heads the party’s parliamentary group. “If we don’t get the confidence vote we head for prolonged crisis.”
But the fiasco has also focused minds. With the country counting the days to default, Greek politicians are under immense pressure to vote the €130bn EU-IMF debt deal through parliament with the biggest majority possible. Failure to pass the agreement, which will also ensure that 50% of Greece’s debt is written off, has already elicited warnings of further financing being withheld.
At immediate stake is a long overdue €8bn injection of cash badly needed to cover payments in schools and hospitals and public sector wages and pensions.
The threat induced the main opposition conservative party, New Democracy, to row back on its previous rejection of the bailout deal announcing, for the first time since the eruption of the crisis, that it would support the package in parliament. The about-turn was warmly welcomed by Paris and Berlin where officials have long complained that lack of political concensus in Greece has been the single biggest impediment to modernising the economy and making it more competitive. A new unity government would be created for the sole purpose of rectifying the deal before early elections are called.
Papandreou has brushed off the referendum furore, saying that ultimately with New Democracy’s endorsement of the measures it has proven to be a “positive shock.”
But in the maelstrom of the past few days he also appears to have recognised that he will have to sacrifice himself for the sake of Greece moving forward.
“The issue is how to keep the country going and then evolve the current government into a broader government that takes on board other political forces,” said Eenergy minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou, one of the leader’s closest confidents. “We need broader support and approval for the kind of measures that were taken.”