Factions of Greece's ruling left-wing Syriza party were taking battle stations on Wednesday, ahead of a crucial vote on austerity measures which will test whether Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras can hold his government together as he tries to satisfy the country's creditors' demands on terms for a new bailout.
Just hours before the late-night vote, few voices from Syriza could be heard in the corridors of parliament in support of the austerity measures, covering €9 billion of spending cuts and tax hikes over the next three years.
Government officials have appealed for unity in support of the measures, which are a prerequisite for securing a bailout package from the eurozone and International Monetary Fund worth up to €86 billion.
Officials say they don't know how many Syriza lawmakers will vote against the measures.
Nevertheless, the measures are expected to pass, thanks to support from opposition parties. But the scale of the rebellion among Syriza lawmakers could determine how long Mr. Tsipras can continue in office without reshaping his coalition or calling new elections.
Fresh cracks in the government appeared on Wednesday, with the resignation of deputy finance minister Nantia Valavani over the bailout, even though last week she supported Mr. Tsipras's decision to seek the new bailout agreement with international creditors.
"It is one thing to face an exceptionally difficult reality and catastrophe with hope and a future of dignity and independence," she said in a letter sent to the Greek premier. "It is another issue to handle a catastrophe that will be completed with whatever national income is left heading abroad for the repayment of debt that cannot be repaid in centuries," she said.
Nobody knows how long the 40-year-old premier can maintain the backing of his own Syriza party, and its right-wing coalition partner Independent Greeks. Finalizing the bailout agreement is likely to take several weeks. Selling the tough austerity policies attached to it is his biggest political test at home since he swept to victory in an election in January on an antiausterity ticket.
Government officials estimate between 30 and 40 Syriza lawmakers, including two cabinet ministers and the speaker of parliament, are expected to vote against the measures on Wednesday night. A rebellion on that scale would leave Mr. Tsipras' coalition short of a majority in the 300-seat parliament. Some observers say the rebellion could be even bigger.
"I respect the prime minister enormously and his stance is one of ultimate selflessness. But parliament must not complete the blackmail (by creditors) that the government has been subject to. We are obligated to ask from the so-called partners to respect democracy," parliamentary speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou told a committee debating the bill.
"I felt real anger when I heard (German chancellor Angela) Merkel announcing what and how the Greek parliament will vote, " she said.
Syriza lawmakers have been locked in nonstop meetings in the last few days to decide how to proceed. Many of them have been seen to be adopting a mixed stance, saying they are committed to Mr. Tsipras as prime minister but not his decisions.
Some Syriza lawmakers speak of "troubling" and "threatening" developments for their party if it reneges on its key electoral promise of opposing austerity. Others recognize the urgency of Greece's financial situation as the country could go bankrupt and face exit from the eurozone unless it complete the steps needed to clinch rescue funding.
"There is no other alternative. There is no time for another path to be taken," said Evangelos Apostolou, deputy agriculture minister.
The legislation bill passed a first hurdle Wednesday when it was approved by four parliamentary committees. It now heads to the plenary session, which is expected to vote well after midnight.
Syriza parliamentary spokesman Athanasios Petrakos said he plans to vote against the deal, but he said his decision wouldn't be a step against the government.
"If we accept (creditors') blackmail, then we recognize that the people cannot fight the powerful. I can't accept sending this message," he said.
Mr. Tsipras is trying to sell an economic program he admits he doesn't believe in. In an attempt to shore up support for the bailout deal, finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos said it might be improved before being finalized in the next month.
"Up until a few months ago, our partners didn't discuss the issue of debt restructuring, but with the deal that has been reached, we have their clear commitment that it will be discussed after the first review" of Greece's compliance with the bailout's terms, Mr. Tsakalotos told a committee meeting in parliament.
"I think that it is too early to judge this deal. We will be able to see when talks wind up in 30 to 40 days when we have the final agreement. Then we can all judge it with seriousness for the good of the country," Mr. Tsakalotos said.
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