Hopes of building a unity government in Greece have taken a hit with the opposition instead demanding immediate elections, despite Prime Minister George Papandreou narrowly winning a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Papandreou calls for unity government, but hopes fade
Greece was in political deadlock on Saturday, as the main opposition party in the crisis-wracked country resisted calls by Prime Minister George Papandreou to form a unity government.
Papandreou argued that a broad-based government was vital to keeping the country in the eurozone, but the opposition insisted instead that immediate elections be held, dampening hopes of any quick solution.
Calling on Papandreou to resign, Antonis Samaras, the leader of Greece's conservative New Democracy party, said a vote should be held by early December; a scenario dismissed by the prime minister as "a disaster."
The conservative opposition has called for immediate elections
Samaras said he would accept the huge European Union bailout plan designed to keep nearly-bankrupt Greece afloat, but not the additional austerity measures Papandreou says would need to accompany it.
Greek President Carolos Papoulios announced he would hold talks with Samaras on Sunday. The president can summon political parties for talks if no progress is made on important issues that lead to political gridlock.
Narrow victory in confidence vote
In a dramatic parliamentary debate in the early morning hours of Saturday, Papandreou won a knife-edge vote of confidence and indicated he was prepared to step aside for the good of the country.
It was a first in the constitutional history of Greece with parliament expressing confidence in a prime minister so that he can soon resign.
But potential dissenters had made their approval conditional on Papandreou opening the way up for a successor and also, ideally, to accept the formation of a government of national unity.
The prime minster seemed to accept these conditions. In his speech shortly before the vote in parliament, Papandreou declared himself ready to accept and promote the idea of a broad, cross-party government in talks with the country’s president on Saturday.
Papandreou also mentioned that he was willing to talk about being replaced as the leader of the government. But he did not explicitly say that he would step down.
Days are numbered
Venizelos may have his eye on Greece's top seat
Although little seems impossible in Greek politics of late, only a very few people believe that Papandreou has a realistic chance of remaining in power.
The Greek premier sparked international uproar on Monday when he announced a referendum on the latest 130-billion-euro ($180 billion) bailout agreed by eurozone leaders last week. However, the government announced Friday that the referendum would not go ahead.
After the referendum fiasco, it appears that Papandreou is no longer acceptable even to some within his own party.
Opinions differ about who and what is likely to come after him. The ruling Socialists are in favor of a government of national unity involving all political parties but preferably under their own leadership. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos appears keen to take over the role of premier.
The conservative opposition, which is playing an increasingly important role in matters, is calling for a transitional government of experts which would clear the way for fresh elections within six weeks.
Papandreou has offered a compromise: a transitional government stocked with politicians of a high pedigree who were able to get the summit deal and the austerity measures through parliament. It would then lead the country until elections by March 2012 at the latest.
If the conservatives under Samaras continue to refuse to take part in any government of national unity, it would leave the Socialists with no choice but to form a shrunken coalition with the populist right and the economically liberal "Democratic Alliance" of former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis – seen as a rather pointless exercise.
The leftist opposition signaled that it was particularly upset about the vote. "They want us to express our support for a government that is not even there anymore," said leader of the moderate Left Alliance Alexis Tsipras.
Many are asking the same question: Why did Papandreou even go into a vote of confidence if he apparently intends to stand down?
Many protests against the government have taken place
That likely stems from the conventions of the Socialist party. A similar agreement in the past saved the Socialists from a division and gave Papandreou a boost toward power. In 2004, Prime Minister Kostas Simitis' term was cut short when he resigned and stepped down as party chairman – a post he handed over to Papandreou.
After a government interlude of the conservatives, Papandreou's party won the parliamentary elections in 2009 - which involved Papandreou surprisingly pushing aside his former mentor Simitis and becoming prime minister.
Back then, calls for a referendum were the reason for the conflict within the party as well. Shortly before the European elections in 2009, Papandreou promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – against the will of the steadfastly pro-European Simitis.
It would be a nice irony if Papandreou stepped down only to have his predecessor Simitis take over again, as possible head of a transitional government.
Author: Jannis Papadimitriou, Athens, Gregg Benzow (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Andreas Illmer, Ben Knight