Greek PM survives vote of confidence

Face of a worried political leader. Greek PM George Papandreu ponders his future as Greece on the verge of being thrown out of the Euro Zone.

Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece won a crucial vote of confidence late Tuesday, with all 155 lawmakers of the Socialist party expressing their support for his beleaguered government, significantly above the absolute majority of 151 votes required by Greece’s 300-seat Parliament.  

The vote averts early elections and a stalled government at a critical moment. Now, Mr. Papandreou must face an even bigger challenge, when Parliament votes next week on a slate of measures that includes tax hikes, wage cuts and state privatization. The steps were required by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund before the next segment of aid that Greece needs to meet expenses through the summer is released.

Before the vote, Mr. Papandreou called on Parliament and the people to show responsibility and seize “a critical opportunity to save the country from default. All Greeks have the duty and the ability to change this country,” he said. He defended the country’s foreign creditors, who have become a lightning rod for popular fury, saying, “They are giving us a helping hand in difficult times.”

But tens of thousands of people gathered outside Parliament, many voicing rage at foreign lenders they see as a kind of occupying power and at a government they blame for Greece’s financial crisis. “They destroyed the country,” said Terpsichore Theofili, 23, a history student, as she stood in the crowd in Syntagma Square outside Parliament. “They should pay, not us,” she added.

For three weeks, protesters have come together nightly in the square to air their grievances over a crisis that endures despite a round of painful austerity measures, leaving the government struggling to agree on another round of painful cuts to further diminish the country’s bloated public sector and win urgently needed international bailout money. Many in the crowd wore stickers aimed at Parliament that read, “We won’t leave until they leave.”

As the vote neared, they shouted their anger.  “No one explained to us why the first measures failed,” said Christos Sideris, 35, who was waving a Greek flag. “We burned 110 billion euros and now they want another 80 billion. They’re squeezing us by the neck and these are unanswered questions.”

Inside, in the debate leading up to the vote, Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, the main opposition party, repeated his calls for a renegotiation of the new austerity package. “We will not give consensus to a mistake,” Mr. Samaras said. “We are, however, more than ready to give consensus to the correction of a mistake.” Conservatives briefly walked out, but returned for the vote. On Tuesday, the Socialist party appeared to rally around Mr. Papandreou following a week of turmoil in which two Socialist members of Parliament gave up their seats in protest at what they saw as the prime minister’s failures of leadership.

In the reshuffle last Friday, Mr. Papandreou replaced the former finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, who has been the face of the government’s negotiations with its international lenders, with Evangelos Venizelos, a Socialist party veteran with the clout to get the party in line behind measures that have often gone against traditional Socialist positions.

But tensions remained inside the party. In Parliamentary debate on Tuesday, a Socialist Member of Parliament, Panayiotis Kouroublis, said that his vote on Tuesday would be positive but that it did not constitute unconditional support for the governing party. “I will vote for the government tonight, but that does not mean I’m giving it carte blanche,” he said.

Last week, Mr. Papandreou failed to forge a government of national unity with the New Democracy party, which is center-right and was in power when Greece’s debt ballooned. The party now opposes some of the terms of the austerity measures and has proposed tax cuts in addition to spending cuts.

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