Greek Prime Minister Struggles To Retain Power

Prime Minister George Papandreou has backed down from a referendum on the European Union bailout package and he faces a vote of confidence Friday. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells host Steve Inskeep his future is uncertain.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Nobody said that solving the European debt crisis would be easy. European leaders say they have a bailout plan that would cut the debts of Greece and keep the debt crisis from spreading. And they seem to have the Greek prime minister onboard after he first announced a referendum on the plan, then changed his mind under pressure. Now it's not clear if Prime Minister George Papandreou can keep his job. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Athens, Greece. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Just to understand, as we going here, is it clear to you that Greece has signed on to this bailout plan, is at least that much clear?

POGGIOLI: Oh, nothing is clear here today. It's been two incredible couple of days of incredible horse trading and political maneuvering in the best cryptic Balkan fashion. Papandreou returned to Athens from the G-20 Summit in Cannes, where he was taken out on the carpet by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over his referendum proposal, and he was humiliated by his EU partners. And then he found a mutiny in Athens within his own Socialist Party where many lawmakers were furious at this referendum proposal. And after several hours of talks and backroom negotiations, Papandreou won support for the bailout deal from his major rival, the opposition New Democracy Party leader Antonis Samaras. And then Papandreou said okay, so now we don't need a referendum anymore. But Samaras insisted that Papandreou step down and that a transitional government pave the way to snap elections in six weeks. At first there were reports that Papandreou was willing to resign, then apparently he changed his mind, and that prompted Samaras to say he'd been deceived and blackmailed, and in very dramatic gestures Samaras walked out of parliament and took all his party lawmakers with him.

INSKEEP: Okay, so chaos here. And, of course, the key for the prime minister is he needs to have a sufficient number of lawmakers who back going along with this bailout, which includes more austerity measures for Greece. And there's a vote of confidence then today for the prime minister. Can he win that vote?

POGGIOLI: Well, after - it's not clear. After all the turmoil yesterday, Papandreou told parliament that he's not clinging to his seat and he would consider stepping down, but only after winning a vote of confidence. And that, as you say, is a really big if. After the, over the last several months Papandreou has faced increasing dissent within his party over his handling of the crisis and negotiations with international lenders. And with all these large and very - sometimes very violent demonstrations in the streets, his majority has dropped steadily, and it's not at all clear whether he has even a one-vote majority.

In his speech to his party, Papandreou, who has always presented himself as, you know, cool, technocratic and detached, he turned populist, trying to rally his troops by saying democracy is at stake, we can't allow the markets and banks to dictate our lives; it is up to the people to decide. So it was quite a shift from the politician who had been widely criticized by Greeks as having sold Greece off to international lenders.

INSKEEP: Okay, it is up to the people to decide, he says. What are people saying on the streets?

POGGIOLI: Well, there were more demonstrations outside parliament last night, as there have been for months. The great majority of Greeks have had it with two years of severe belt-tightening, and that has only worsened the economic situation here. Polls say 60 percent are opposed to the terms of the latest bailout deal. And editorial comment from left to right is unforgiving with the prime minister. The conservative Kathimerini, which has been in favor of the bailout terms, has some of the most scathing comments, such as there is not a single sane person who does not believe that Greece will be destroyed if Papandreou and his government remain in power. And even the pro-government Ta Nea daily writes: Acrobatics with the country on the brink of collapse. The media is accusing Papandreou of gambling with the fate of Greece.

INSKEEP: Well, this is another thing to try to understand here. If Papandreou loses his job, does that mean that this whole bailout begins to fall apart? Does it mean something else?

POGGIOLI: It's not clear. And as I said, everything is very unclear here. The...

INSKEEP: That's the answer to all questions, Sylvia.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POGGIOLI: The Europeans are saying the deal is there, if, you know, the government is in favor, and if the parliament is in favor. And in fact, yesterday with Samara saying he's in - this unexpected about-face saying he would vote in favor of the bailout deal, that is precisely what Greece's EU partners had been hoping for, as broad as possible a political consensus for the austerity measures. But whatever happens in the vote of confidence today, the likeliest scenario is early elections in a few weeks or in a few months.

INSKEEP: Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Athens.

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