Greek government defends bailout deal ahead of vote

ATHENS, Greece – The Greek government defended its new bailout program in tumultuous parliamentary sessions Thursday, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faced a rebellion in his governing Syriza party ahead of a vote on the deal.

The draft bill for the three-year rescue package worth about 85 billion euros ($93 billion) in loans includes harsh spending cuts and tax hikes that Tsipras has said he has no option but to implement.

Lawmakers wrangled over the bill for about nine hours in an acrimonious parliamentary committee debate that began in the morning, with delays arising from amendments submitted to the original bill and procedural objections by those opposing the measures.

Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos stressed the urgency of the vote, with eurozone finance ministers to discuss the deal at a meeting Friday afternoon in Brussels.

As the debate in parliament was set to last most of the night, with a vote early Friday, Tsipras spoke on the telephone late Thursday to French President Francois Hollande and European Comission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Despite the repeated delays in Greece, lawmakers in Finland authorized the country’s prime minister to finalize Greek bailout negotiations on behalf of his country – an indication that eurozone lenders were moving toward finalizing the deal.

The Syriza rebellion has left Tsipras dependent on opposition votes in parliament to pass legislation, and the bill is expected to win approval comfortably. Hundreds of anti-austerity protesters marched through Athens in anticipation of the plenary debate Thursday evening.

Tsipras’ radical left party won elections in January on promises to repeal similar budget austerity imposed in return for Greece’s two previous bailouts. His about-face, agreeing this week to tough terms with creditor negotiators from the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund, has led to outrage among hardliners that now threatens to split the party.

Former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, a Syriza hardliner who lost his cabinet position last month after voting against another bailout-related bill, took a step toward a full split with his party Thursday, joining a group of another 12 left-wing politicians announcing they will create a new anti-bailout movement. He stopped short, however, of saying he was leaving his party.

His move “finalizes his decision, taken a while ago, to choose a different path than the government and Syriza,” the government said in an emailed note.

The internal party problems have increased speculation, fanned by some Syriza members themselves, that Tsipras might have to call early elections as soon as September.

The deal still needs the approval of eurozone finance ministers and that of several other countries’ parliaments, including Germany’s.

Germany, which was the largest single contributor to Greece’s two previous bailouts, has been the country’s harshest critic and has maintained a cautious stance.

German deputy finance minister Jens Spahn said Thursday that “Germany isn’t the only country that is still asking questions at the moment.”

Spahn told Deutschlandfunk radio that the Greek government clearly recognizes its country must change if it wants to remain in the eurozone – “a lot has been achieved.” But he said it was normal “that questions are asked.”

Spahn stressed the importance to Germany of getting a clear signal from the IMF that it will remain a part of the bailout program and said there still needs to be discussion about details of a planned privatization fund that will sell off Greek state-owned property.

Greece is anxious for the deal to be completed in time for it to receive funds ahead of a big debt repayment to the ECB due on Aug. 20. Without the money, it would default – reviving concerns that it might drop out of the euro, with disastrous economic consequences.

Tsakalotos insisted Greece does not want an interim loan, which some creditors have proposed as a solution if the main bailout deal cannot be finalized with all creditors in time.

However, senior EU finance officials overnight tasked the European Commission with drawing up a “contingency plan” for a new interim loan as a safety net, said an EU official who was not permitted to speak on the record due to departmental rules.

Such a loan would take care of Greece’s Aug. 20 debt payment and buy more time for eurozone members to tweak the plan.

Speaking in parliament, Tsakalotos said the government has pledged to stick to the creditors’ demand of achieving a budget surplus, when not counting debt servicing, of 3.5 percent of GDP by 2018, but that the country will have a more gradual path to achieve the target than originally foreseen.

Greece will implement most of the savings in 2017 instead of this year and next year. Tsakalotos said there would be a package of measures in October that will be implemented in 2017. Greece’s progress on reforms will be reviewed every three months.

“I think there are very difficult measures in this package. In some of these we have tried to play with time” and stagger their implementation, such as gradual increases on diesel fuel taxes for farmers, to soften the blow, he said.

The broad terms of the bailout were agreed on after months of fraught negotiations that have cost the Greek economy dearly.

The economy is expected to have taken a severe hit in July, when talks on the bailout collapsed, leading the government to close the banks and stock market for about a month.

In the three months before that, however, the economy grew by an unexpected 0.8 percent compared with the previous quarter, the national statistics agency estimated Thursday.

Analysts said the jump could have been due to a strong start to the tourism season and the government’s suspension of some budget cuts. They note, however, that the economy likely took a big hit after the second quarter due to the capital controls.


Geir Moulson in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.

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