NEWS

Greek lawmakers bicker through the night ahead of bailout vote on Friday

LEFTERIS PAPADIMAS & MICHELE KAMBAS

TAGS: Politics, Euro

Greek lawmakers bickered through the night over a new bailout deal to keep the country afloat, only hours before euro zone finance ministers are due to decide on Friday whether to approve the vital aid for Athens.

With the ruling Syriza party apparently heading for a split over the 85 billion euro ($95 billion) programme, parliament finally began debating whether to accept the package which demands yet more austerity and economic reform at 3:45 a.m. (0045 GMT), with no vote likely until well after daybreak.

Parliament is expected to approve the agreement with Greece's euro zone and International Monetary Fund creditors by a comfortable margin when it finally votes, since opposition parties have promised to back Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to ensure that Greece does not return to financial chaos.

Tempers flared with the conservative opposition accusing Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos of making "provocative" comments and warning him not to take its support for the deal for granted. "If you want to provoke us - and for us to vote for it - well, you can't have it both ways," New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis said.

Tsipras faces a rebellion within Syriza, with leftist members refusing to accept his promises of tax rises and spending cuts in exchange for fresh loans under Greece's third financial rescue programme in five years.

Parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou, one of the Syriza hardliners, snubbed a request from Tsipras to speed up handling of the bailout bill so that it can be voted on well before the finance ministers meet in Brussels on Friday.

Instead, she raised a long series of procedural questions and objections which held up proceedings until lawmakers finally voted to conclude the debate at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) on Friday, after which the vote will be taken.

Once the bill is passed, the euro zone ministers still have to approve the deal for aid to be disbursed before Athens must make a 3.2 billion euro debt payment to the European Central Bank on Aug. 20.

If it defaults on this debt, the ECB is likely to halt emergency funding for Greece's crippled banks.

Athens was forced to close the banks for three weeks and even now capital controls severely limiting withdrawals and payments aboard remain, badly hurting the economy.

Test of strength

Friday's vote will test the strength of the Syriza rebellion, which could raise pressure on Tsipras to call elections as early as September.

The rebels' leader, former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, took a step toward breaking away from Syriza, a coalition of leftist groups which stormed to power in January promising to reverse austerity policies demanded by the euro zone and IMF creditors.

"The fight against the new bailout starts today, by mobilising people in every corner of the country," said a statement signed by Lafazanis and 11 other Syriza members and posted on the far-left faction's Iskra website.

The statement called for founding a "united movement that will justify people's desire for democracy and social justice", although it did not explicitly call for a new party or a split from Syriza.

The government responded by saying the move "finalises his decision to choose a different path from that of the government and Syriza".

The rebels insist the government should stand by the promises on which it was elected, to reverse the waves of spending cuts and tax rises which have had a devastating effect on an already weak economy over the past few years.

[Reuters]

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