Greek PM Tsipras gestures during a parliamentary session in Athens
By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - A referendum on bailout terms that has morphed into a plebiscite on Greece's future in Europe has created the first real splits in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' ruling coalition.
Four members of the right-wing Independent Greeks, uneasy bedfellows whose 13 votes Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party needs for a majority, defied him in the space of 24 hours by urging Greeks to accept more austerity in return for cash.
With banks shut and Greeks queuing at cash machines for a meagre 60 euros a day, the dissenters made clear they felt Tsipras was courting a disastrous exit from the euro zone by calling for a 'No' vote.
"Though these measures are painful - I don't even know if Greeks can bear them - a 'No' will lead to the (reintroduction of the) drachma, which means the immediate destruction of the country, something that I don't want to consent to," Costas Damavolitis told Greek television.
Another dissenter, Vassilis Kokkalis, said he had not been elected on a mandate to close banks, and called for the referendum to be scrapped. His party colleague Dimitris Kammenos said Greece's role in Europe was "non-negotiable".
The defections were not enough to put the government at risk three days before a vote that is likely to decide its fate. But Tsipras and Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos acted to shore up the coalition, held together from the start only by shared hatred of the austerity imposed by foreign lenders.
Damavolitis was expelled from the party's parliamentary grouping, and then gave up his seat.
And Tsipras and Panos Kammenos - who is also defence minister - made a show of unity in a joint news conference in which Tsipras reiterated that he would stand firm against any attempt by creditors to cut back Greece's armed forces.
A top Syriza official said there "was not even a risk of one in a million," that the government's parliamentary majority was at risk for the moment.
While a "No" vote would be a political victory for Tsipras, it would make it harder for him to restart talks with creditors on any new aid, putting it on a path towards default on a huge loan to the European Central Bank, a banking collapse and most likely an exit from the euro.
In the event of a "Yes", Tsipras has strongly hinted that he would step down, something that would probably prompt the president to urge the formation of an interim "national unity" government to reopen talks with lenders and keep Greece afloat until elections are held.
Officials in the conservative party of former prime minister Antonis Samaras have for several weeks been sounding out other opposition politicians about their willingness to join a government of national unity if the need arises, according to the officials involved.
(additional reporting by Lefteris Karagiannopoulos; Editing by Kevin Liffey)