World Bulletin / News Desk
Greece's deputy labour minister resigned on Monday saying the government was not being aggressive enough in pushing for changes to an unpopular bailout, becoming the third cabinet member to quit the fledgling coalition in as many weeks.
The resignation is a new setback for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, whose government had already stumbled to a rocky start when his initial pick for finance minister resigned over health problems.
"The sole reason for my resignation is my personal conviction that the issue of renegotiating with the troika, as well as the correction of significant distortions in labour, pension, social security and welfare issues, should have been emphatically put on the table from the start," Nikos Nikolopoulos wrote in his resignation letter.
Analysts said the resignation suggested internal rifts were emerging over the coalition's stance on renegotiating the bailout with the three lenders - the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The government initially demanded numerous changes to the rescue package when it took power last month, but has struck a more conciliatory tone in recent days as it faces the prospect of running out of cash without more aid.
"It is an indication that the government will face internal problems between groups pushing for a 'hard' and 'soft' stance towards the troika and the terms of the bailout," said Theodore Couloumbis, political analyst at Athens-based think tank ELIAMEP.
The resignation came hours after Samaras won a confidence vote in parliament and pledged to win back the trust of foreign lenders by pushing ahead on privatisations and long-discussed structural reforms. All 179 deputies from the three-party coalition, including Nikolopoulos, backed the motion in the 300-seat parliament.
Changing policies, not targets
The government has tried in recent days to lower Greek expectations of a swift overhaul of the harsh austerity terms included in the bailout, and tried to focus on asset sales and reforms as the first step to regaining credibility with lenders.
"We don't want to change the targets of the bailout but that which is causing recession and hampering us from attaining those goals," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a speech before the confidence vote.
"We have been saying the same thing repeatedly all along - the only way to avoid bankruptcy and an exit from the euro is through growth and investments."
Samaras's government is juggling opposing demands from home and abroad.
Faced with deep anger at wage and spending cuts in the 130-billion-euro bailout and an emboldened leftist opposition waiting on the sidelines, Samaras has promised long-suffering voters that the punishing terms of the rescue will be softened.
But the government, facing bankruptcy without its next tranche of aid, has to sing a different tune abroad - promising that Greece will stick to its prescribed path of austerity in the hope of convincing lenders it deserves more time, money and flexibility.
Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras says he has already been warned by visiting officials from the lenders that he will face a difficult time at a Monday meeting of the Eurogroup finance ministers.
Officials from the troika ended a short initial visit to Athens to meet government officials on Sunday and are due to return later in the month for more substantial discussions on Greece's faltering progress in hitting its targets, before deciding whether to disburse the next instalment of aid.
Athens has acknowledged it is failing to keep its bailout pledges, and blames this largely on a deeper than expected recession and two months of political limbo due to repeat elections in May and June.
Debt-laden Greece is now in its fifth year of recession, and nearly one out of four Greeks is out of work.
Underscoring the dire state of its econonmy, the influential IOBE think-tank that Stournaras headed before becoming finance minister on Monday projected the economy would contract a steeper-than-expected 6.9 percent this year, with the jobless rate hitting a new record of 23.6 percent.
Samaras's victory in last month's election has eased - but failed to fully quell - concern the country is at risk of crashing out of the euro zone.
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With Chancellor Angela Merkel's right-left coalition plus the opposition Greens, it was the biggest majority for any euro zone rescue package so far in the 631-seat chamber.