Greek PM's austerity gamble sows deep divisions in Syriza

Helene Colliopoulou
Greek PM's austerity gamble sows deep divisions in Syriza

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has won a difficult gamble in convincing the Greek parliament to agree to tough reforms demanded by Greece's creditors, but he is paying the price of deep splits within his radical-leftist Syriza party.

Tsipras won a solid 230 votes out of the 298 lawmakers who fiercely debated Greece's bailout-for-reforms deal into the early hours of Thursday -- proof of "a large consensus", according to Dimitris Sotiropoulos, a political science professor at Athens University.

But it was the second vote in a week that has seen the 40-year-old premier suffer a serious mutiny within his own party over his plans to secure a bailout of up to 86 billion euros ($96 billion) over three years, in exchange for more of the kind of austerity that Syriza came to power promising to end.

Last week, 39 of Syriza's 149 MPs voted against or abstained on a first wave of reforms that had to pass in order for the bailout talks to go ahead, including widespread tax hikes. Outside the parliament, angry protesters lobbed petrol bombs at police guarding the building.

Tsipras managed to trim the rebellion to 36 'no' votes and abstentions when a second bill on the reforms went to parliament on Wednesday night -- but as with last week's vote, he was forced to rely on the opposition to get it through.

"His gamble paid off thanks to help from three opposition parties -- the right-wing New Democracy, the socialists from Pasok and the centre-left party To Potami," said Sotiropoulos.

The academic estimated that Tsipras has lost the support of around 40 percent of Syriza's rank-and-file members and a quarter of his MPs, hailing from the "left platform" and other hostile factions that are staunchly opposed to more austerity and, in some cases, continuing Greek membership of the euro.

- A break with the rebels? -

Tsipras has not had an easy few weeks. In a referendum on July 5, Greeks emphatically voted against further austerity -- urged on by the prime minister himself.

Days later, determined to stop Greece defaulting on its debts and hurtling out of the eurozone into the unknown, he agreed to reforms similar to those voters had just rejected, sparking accusations that he had caved to "blackmail" from the creditors.

In managing to convince a parliament with deep misgivings to approve the measures, Tsipras has scored a victory in the short-term, said Manos Papazoglou, political sciences professor at the University of Peloponnese.

"But in the long term there will be problems," he told AFP.

"The tradition in Greece is to have strong parliamentary majorities and in this case, his party has suffered a major divide," said Papazoglou.

Thursday's vote placed Tsipras in the unenviable position of running what is not just a coalition government, but one that is effectively a minority administration.

Out of 300 MPs in parliament, he counted the support of just 126 coalition MPs -- 113 from Syriza and 13 from their junior partners, the nationalist Independent Greeks.

A minority government "would have difficulty passing laws in future without forging a political agreement with other parties," said Sotiropoulos.

Government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili admitted the result of Thursday's voted pointed to a "clear divide" in the party and said "planned procedures" would be implemented to address it.

Tsipras has stressed that his current priority is to finalise the bailout deal. Both sides are under huge pressure to get the agreement hammered out before August 20, when Athens owes the European Central Bank a loan repayment of 3.2 billion euros it cannot afford.

But many analysts believe the prime minister will be forced to call early elections in a country that badly needs stability as it battles to stave off economic collapse.

"Elections would have negative repercussions for both the economy and the political sphere," said Penelope Fountedaki, a law professor based at Pantion University.

After Tsipras finally reached a symbolic consensus in parliament for the bailout deal, fresh elections could deepen divisions within the electorate, she said.

Tsipras's best bet, she argued, is to "break with the dissidents at the heart of his party and go forward with other parties".

Despite the troubles in his ranks, the youthful prime minister is riding high in the opinion polls, which show him overwhelmingly regarded as the best man to be running Greece at present.

Even after the broken promises, many voters believe Tsipras acts honestly and with their interests at heart -- a break with leaders from parties on both the left and the right, in power for decades in Greece, who they hold responsible for steering the country into the crisis.