Greece crisis: Pressure on Tsipras grows with threat of defections

Concessions in debt negotiations trigger reaction that could threaten Syriza majority

Greek concessions in talks aimed at averting bankruptcy have stirred a backlash in the ruling Syriza party, where prime minister Alexis Tsipras must stave off defections that could threaten his majority in parliament.

Just six months after it entered government, the radical- left party is facing anger among supporters for tabling proposals that would extend international funding for Greece in return for more austerity.

Deputy parliamentary speaker and Syriza member Alexis Mitropoulos said the deal would be difficult for the party to accept, calling it a failure by the leadership and "not in line with the principles of the left".

The true extent of the internal opposition to the compromise will not become clear until a final text is agreed but a great deal hinges on how Tsipras sells it and whether any commitment can be extracted from Greece’s creditors on easing the country’s debt burden.


The Syriza leader has been walking a tightrope in recent weeks. He had to give Greece’s lenders enough by way of concessions for them to release further funding while taking care not to alienate the left wing of his own party, a broad alliance that includes social democrats, former trade union militants and Marxists.

The party leadership will point to the fact that most of the measures it is proposing are tax rises for wealthier individuals and profit-making companies. The only reductions in spending apply to the military. Tsipras’s allies say the deal will advance the goals of redistribution and social justice, and that Syriza held a number of its red lines: it has avoided scrapping the benefit for low-income pensions, while public sector wages will not be cut any further.

Yet according to MEP Stelios Kouloglou, who stood on the Syriza list, the party’s achievements in the deal are relatively minor. “It’s a victory for the creditors, because they managed to impose on Syriza an austerity programme,” says Kouloglu, who is close to Tsipras. He believes the troika’s aims were to “send a message” to Spain’s Podemos and other parties that would challenge austerity, but also to force a split in Syriza that would result in its far-left faction being jettisoned in favour of a less threatening minor coalition partner such as the centrist Potami party. “I think there was an effort to humiliate Tsipras, to discredit him in the eyes of voters and supporters.”

For a party that swept to power on an anti-austerity platform, Syriza may well find the deal a hard sell at home. It includes VAT increases, restrictions on early retirement and some social security hikes. "It's not going down very well," says Mattheos Tsimitakis, a journalist at the Syriza newspaper Avgi. "Activists don't buy the argument that this won't hit lower incomes."

If Tsipras is to secure passage of the deal through parliament, he may well need a pledge from the creditors on future easing of Greece's debt burden, now running at 177 per cent of GDP. "This must be said openly so that left-wing voters and parliamentarians have something to hold on to," according to Dimitrios Sotiropoulos of the University of Athens.

When the deal eventually comes to a parliamentary vote, the greatest threat to Tsipras’s majority comes from the Left Platform faction, which controls 40 of his 149 seats. Sotiropoulos believes there is “a real risk” he will lose between five and 20 coalition members. It’s possible the deal could be approved even amid large-scale defections, presuming it won support from the socialist party, Potami and perhaps even conservative New Democracy.

One possible “way out” for Tsipras would be to call an election next month, Sotiropoulos suggests, in the hope of casting out the No voters and shoring up the majority. “He cannot govern for a long time if parliamentary support for him is not solid and depends, every time a new measure is voted on, on shifting alliances among the factions of his party. We would have a new political crisis every time a new measure was submitted to the parliament,” he says.

Looking back on a difficult week for Syriza, the MEP Stelios Kouloglu does not blame Tsipras and his advisers but believes they underestimated the power of the key players around the table. “They thought that if they argued rationally, the creditors would understand that this is not the way to resolve the problem and that we should be given some space for development and growth,” he says. “The others were not ready to argue rationally. They were ready to fight and impose their will.”

Asked about reports that Minister for Finance Michael Noonan supported a suggested by his Germany counterpart Wolfgang Schaüble that the ECB should stop pumping money into Greek banks unless capital controls were imposed, Kouloglu says he was disappointed by the stance taken by euro- zone states that had been badly affected by the crisis.

"They were facing more or less the same problems – young people leaving the country, austerity programmes, blackmail and threats," he says, adding that Ireland was "obliged to accept" a bailout.

“We were disappointed, but what can you do? When you have 18 governments against you and you are only one, and you’re weakened by five years of crisis and social instability, it’s very difficult to win. You have to make a ceasefire. And this is a ceasefire that has been imposed mainly by the other side.”