NEWS

PM faces opposition from some ministers, MPs

Despite support from most of the Cabinet for Prime Minister George Papandreou?s bid to hold a referendum on whether Greece should adopt the latest loan deal it has agreed with the eurozone, some ministers objected to the proposal and the premier still faces a challenge to convince his MPs to back him in the vote of confidence in Parliament on Friday.

Papandreou assured his ministers that the government would win the referendum and that he would receive the backing of his eurozone peers on the idea of holding the vote. The prime minister is due to hold talks at the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Cannes today with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Most of the Cabinet agreed to support the idea of referendum but there was a general acceptance that it would have to take place before January, as had been previously planned.

Several ministers expressed strong objections. Health Minister Andreas Loverdos and Transport Minister Yiannis Ragousis were the most critical.

According to sources, Loverdos suggested that it was unwise to hold a vote on an issue that would bind Greece for years to come. He said he would not give his consent until he sees the final wording of the questions in the referendum.

Ragousis said that the government should avoid creating circumstances where the calling of elections becomes inevitable. He added that the referendum would create unnecessary uncertainty around Greece?s membership of the euro.

Loverdos and Ragousis are two of the three ministers that recently wrote an open letter calling on Papandreou to forge ahead with bolder reforms. Many commentators saw that as a move to establish a reformist bloc within the Cabinet from which a new PASOK leader might emerge.

The other author of the letter, Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou expressed concern during Tuesday?s Cabinet meeting about what questions would be posed in the referendum.

Agricultural Development Minister Costas Skandalidis said he was upset that the Cabinet had not been informed about Papandreou?s intention to call a referendum.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos did not attend the meeting as he was being treated in hospital. Sources close to Venizelos let it be known that he was not aware Papandreou would call a referendum, although the minister defended the decision in Parliament and on TV before being admitted to the hospital with abdominal pains.

The Cabinet?s backing for the plebiscite may prove to be irrelevant as MPs also have to approve the proposal in Parliament. At least four PASOK deputies have already indicated that they would not vote for the motion. This would leave Papandreou relying on votes from the handful of independent lawmakers, as all the opposition parties have said they would vote against it.

However, before Parliament votes on the referendum, it will have to deal a vote of confidence on Friday. At this stage, Papandreou cannot take a positive vote for granted.

Socialist deputy Milena Apostolaki said on Tuesday that she was quitting PASOK?s parliamentary group to become an independent. She referred to the referendum proposal as ?wrong and divisive.? Her decision reduced the government?s presence in the 300-seat Parliament to just 152.

Another PASOK MP, Eva Kaili suggested that she would not vote for the government. She called on Papandreou to form a government of national unity. Speaking on Mega TV on Wednesday, Kaili said that she would wait to see what is agreed at the talks in Cannes before taking the final decision on how to cast her ballot. She said that there are another 10 PASOK lawmakers who are undecided about how to vote.