Though there are a few no-smoking signs posted inside the Greek Parliament building, their admonition was not enforced on Tuesday in the second-floor offices of the ruling Syriza party, where lighting up was one of the few available means of calming some badly rattled nerves. Amid the haze in the antechamber, party staffers and journalists debated the terms of the bailout agreement that Greece reached on Monday. But no one was sure whether the government could push the devastating terms of the deal through Parliament this week without falling apart and sparking new elections.
At the very least, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will probably have to reshuffle his Cabinet and sideline the Syriza leaders who are turning against him. “That will happen this week for sure,” says one Syriza official, asking to remain anonymous. “Then we will see what’s next.”
As the party whips rallied votes on Tuesday, the number of defectors climbed into the dozens, including two of the government’s ministers and the speaker of the Parliament. Among them was Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, who heads a hard-line faction of Syriza known as Left Platform. “The agreement signed with the institutions is unacceptable,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “This agreement practically voids the people’s mandate.”
When the bailout goes up for a parliamentary vote on Wednesday, most of the Left Platform lawmakers are expected to reject it, costing the Prime Minister at least 30 of the 149 votes his party has in Parliament. But even Lafazanis, the leader of the mutiny within the party, admitted that the deal would still pass, because the more moderate opposition parties would vote in favor.
That will allow the bailout program to move ahead. Over the next three years, it would provide Greece with up to €86 billion in emergency loans to prop up its banking system and prevent Greece from abandoning the European currency union. As a condition of those loans, Tsipras agreed on Monday to impose further austerity on the Greek economy, including tax hikes, spending cuts and a sell-off of state assets worth €50 billion.
But even before the ink on this agreement had dried, some factions within Syriza were plotting their next confrontation with Greece’s creditors. “The agreement can give us a little bit of time so we can get prepared for an alternative,” says Michalis Spourdalakis, a Syriza party member who teaches political science at Athens University. It is only a matter of time, he says, before the Greek electorate rises up against the latest package of austerity, just as it did when electing the Syriza party in January.
Before it took power, the party’s core promise was to end austerity and secure debt relief from Greece’s creditors. But after five months of negotiations, Prime Minister Tsipras failed to win any significant concessions and, in Brussels this weekend, he finally bowed to the creditors’ demands for more austerity in exchange for more loans.
“It’s not that the government won’t try to implement this,” says Spourdalakis. “It simply can’t.” The size of the public sector has already been cut by more than 40% over the past five years of austerity, putting around 400,000 civil servants out of work. Pensions have already been reduced so drastically that nearly half of retirees are living below the poverty line.
And if Greece moves ahead with the bailout deal agreed this weekend, it will only push Greece deeper into recession, shaving at least another 3% off the size of the Greek economy, which has already contracted by a quarter since 2010. “The general expectation from this deal is that we are going to have a recession throughout the year and most probably the next year or two,” says Georgios Daremas, a Syriza member and adviser to the Greek Ministry of Labor.
As the pain of that contraction weighs on the Greek people, the ruling government will have to answer for it at the polls. And some factions within the Syriza party already seem to be preparing for that outcome. “The Greek people will not accept it,” Minister Lafazanis said of the latest bailout. “They will void the agreement through their struggles and unity.”
As long as Greece remains a democracy, its people will have a chance to reject austerity by electing whatever leaders promise to resist it. And depending on how the fissures within the Syriza party play out this week, those leaders could ultimately emerge from the most radical wing of the party, armed with yet another mandate to go to Brussels and demand a break on Greece’s debts. It could take a few months or a few years. But Europe would then be right back where it started, having wasted a lot of time and cost Greece a whole lot more heartache.
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