ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek leftist leader Alexis Tsipras has seen off a threat from far-left rebels but his anti-austerity-turned-pro-bailout Syriza party is struggling through a deeply divisive identity crisis weeks before a national election.
Just hours after Tsipras resigned as prime minister last week to pave the way for early elections, a sixth of Syriza’s lawmakers broke away to form their own party to fight the 86 billion euro bailout package their former boss signed up to.
The break-up initially allowed Tsipras to clear out his party’s ranks of the vocal, anti-bailout faction that openly defied him in parliament.
But it has also deepened a rift in his party over Tsipras’s abrupt U-turn to accept austerity measures that his party has long fought against and staked its identity on - a campaign that first propelled it to national power in January’s national election.
The divisions underscore the struggle Tsipras faces in strengthening his grip on power in next month’s vote, and risk leaving him without a strong mandate to implement the unpopular bailout program keeping Greece afloat.
“Syriza may become more mainstream, but the government that will emerge from the election will remain a fragile one that will continue to struggle to meet the bailout conditions, and is likely enjoy a limited lifespan,” analyst Teneo Intelligence said in a research report.
With just three weeks to go before the vote expected on Sept. 20, Tsipras risks losing popular candidates like his former Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos and former spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis, both of whom have kept mum on whether they will run on the Syriza ticket.
“What we’re examining now and what is at stake is the balance Syriza needs to strike between its traditional left values and managing the burden of the bailout,” said one senior Syriza official, who had yet to decide whether to run.
Adding to his troubles, some members of Syriza’s moderate “53+” faction, which has long supported Tsipras, have begun to accuse him of ignoring the party’s interests and undermining its leftist values in favor of holding on to power.
Among them is Syriza’s general secretary Tassos Koronakis, who quit on Monday after launching a blistering attack on Tsipras. He accused Tsipras of ignoring a decision by Syriza’s central committee to hold a party congress in September - that would have allowed members to air differences - and calling elections instead.
“Speeding up the elections, combined with the content of our comrade prime minister’s statement create the impression that we accept the bailout and the lack of popular sovereignty, not as the result of sheer blackmail but as a new fact which we have to live with,” Koronakis wrote in his resignation letter.
“I’ve reached this painful stage where I cannot fulfill my role as a secretary of the central committee.”
The same day, Syriza lawmaker Iro Dioti announced that she would not run in the elections, saying the bailout deal could not be implemented because it is “not financially viable and deepens the recession as well as social inequality.”
She said a party congress would have allowed Syriza to craft a plan to help Greece get rid of bailouts in the future but that the central committee’s decision was not respected.
“As far as I‘m concerned, I cannot serve this plan,” she said in a statement.
The “53+” faction’s main demand is that social policies that follow Syriza’s leftist values are included in the party’s campaign plan and that Tsipras commits to implementing them. One small faction within the group has even suggested it might join the breakaway far-left Popular Unity, Syriza officials say.
Tsipras is expected to address these concerns at a meeting this weekend of the party’s powerful central committee, whose size has temporarily been reduced to about 150 members since the far-left rebel faction broke away.
He sought to reassure the “53+” faction by telling Alpha TV in an interview that he would respect the bailout agreement but try to limit its negative impact. “We have no other choice but to implement it, looking for a way to gradually disengage from the bailout and foreign monitors,” he said.
Tsipras also rushed to praise another prominent 53+ member, the well-liked Tsakalotos, and said the former finance minister as well as former government spokesman Sakellaridis would run both for Syriza. Neither have confirmed such a move.
In Tsipras favor, however, another major party faction: the “Platform 2010” has stood by their leader and issued a statement that said: “Tsipras’ government kept the country alive, laying out the path for its exit from the crisis.”
Fifty lawmakers issued a statement on Friday backing Tsipras: “We are present, full force, for our country’s future,” they said in a statement.
But prominent individual Syriza figures who have rebelled are also creating new headaches for Tsipras. Former Deputy Finance Minister Nadia Valavani joined Popular Unity on Friday. Former parliament speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou is reportedly mulling setting up her own party, which could further eat into Tsipras’s voter base.
In the meantime, an open war of words has broken out between Tsipras and another former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. The outspoken, motorcyle-riding academic left the post last month after alienating his euro zone counterparts.
In the Alpha TV interview this week, Tsipras said Varoufakis “lost his credibility against his interlocutors” at the height of bailout negotiations and that “Varoufakis was talking but nobody paid any attention to him”.
Varoufakis - who remains popular in Greece with 27 percent of voters approving his recent actions in a poll published on Friday - shot back that Tsipras was presiding over the disintegration of his own party.
“Ι heard (Tsipras aide) Nikos Pappas saying that Syriza was toppled from within. It is true, it was toppled by its leadership,” Varoufakis told Reuters. “Its leadership decided that Syriza does not exist anymore ... Lafazanis left, there is a collapse in the morale of members, regardless of which faction they belong to.”
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt