September 23, 2020

Greek Leader, Papandreou, Wins Vote in Push to Save Debt Deal

Mr. Papandreou pledged to form a unity government with a broader consensus, regardless of whether he would lead it.

The moves ended a frenetic week that began with Mr. Papandreou’s surprise call for a referendum on Greece’s new debt agreement with the European Union, which threw financial markets into disarray and even threatened to spread the financial contagion to Italy. He was then forced to back away in a humiliating about-face and saw his domestic support crumble rapidly, even within his own party.

In the 300-member Parliament, Mr. Papandreou received 153 votes. His total included the support of all members of his Socialist Party, known as Pasok, and an independent; several members who had said they would oppose the prime minister ultimately rallied to support him. Mr. Papandreou had widely been expected to step down after the confidence vote, but he said early Saturday that he would explore the composition of a transitional unity government in a meeting with President Karolos Papoulias later in the day. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said the interim government would govern until the end of February, with early elections expected in March.

The confidence vote was essentially cast as a vote on the debt agreement reached with European leaders in Brussels last week, and its passage suggested that Parliament was likely to formally approve the deal. It also appeared to clear the way for Greece to receive the next installment of aid, $11 billion, next month; Greek officials have said that without the additional funds, the country would run out of money to cover expenses by mid-December.

Had Mr. Papandreou lost the vote, his government would have been brought down, throwing the debt agreement into jeopardy and possibly leading to a Greek default and its departure from the euro zone, the 17 nations in the European Union that use the currency. The prime minister’s volatile moves during the week appear to have succeeded in averting those events, at least for now.

But the vote did not resolve the continuing political drama in Greece, including what will be the composition of the next government. Amid growing social unrest in a country whose economy has been decimated by the debt crisis and austerity measures, a new government will have the difficult task of getting formal approval of the debt deal and carrying out the structural changes to which Greece has already pledged itself, including dismissing government workers.

A few hours before the vote, Mr. Papandreou offered a final appeal to Greek lawmakers, declaring his willingness to open immediate talks on a coalition government and to step aside for the good of the country. “The last thing that interests me is my seat,” he said. While the prospect of Greece’s leaving the euro zone, however remote, has been set aside for now, the country is likely to face a caretaker government increasingly seen as beholden to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Greece’s foreign lenders.

Mr. Papandreou told the lawmakers that he had viewed a referendum as a form of “direct democracy,” a nod to protesters who have been calling for a greater say in their country’s future amid a growing sense that Greece was no longer in control of its own affairs. 

The idea of a referendum not only caused market turmoil, but it also infuriated European leaders, who gave Mr. Papandreou a serious dressing down in Cannes, France, on Wednesday. It also provided political leverage for the prime minister; Mr. Papandreou dropped the idea only after the conservative opposition, the New Democracy Party, altered its position and said it would support the debt deal.

The New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras, who has said he would not join a coalition government if it was led by Mr. Panapndreou, repeated his demand for early elections after the confidence vote. On Thursday, he accused Mr. Papandreou of deception and “blackmailing” the Greek people by proposing a referendum.

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.

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