Once they were comrades in the small, close-knit Greek communist party, fighting against the rise of “soft” socialism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Now Alexis Tsipras and Panagiotis Lafazanis hold each other responsible for a looming split in Syriza only six months after it became the first radical leftwing party in Europe to win a general election.
The youthful premier at first seemed to defer to Mr Lafazanis, a veteran of leftwing Greek politics whom he appointed to the powerful post of energy, industry and environment minister, a newly created portfolio.
Earlier this year the two politicians travelled together to Moscow in an ultimately fruitless attempt to persuade Russia to provide a loan of up to €10bn. Mr Tsipras also allowed Mr Lafazanis to derail two big foreign investment projects, destroying what little confidence the business community had in Syriza’s ability to run the economy.
But that was before Mr Tsipras capitulated at an EU summit on July 12 when he was confronted with a German proposal for a temporary Greek exit from the euro. In a swift reversal of his opposition to a third bailout, the premier signed up to fast-track negotiations on a new package which were completed on schedule this week.
The feud between Syriza’s two most popular politicians now threatens to bring down the government and trigger a fresh election at a time when Greece is in dire need of a period of political stability to implement the new bailout programme.
Mr Lafazanis’s supporters speak of an “ideological betrayal” and “treachery” by Mr Tsipras’s faction, while the premier’s camp accuses the Left Platform of planning to set up a breakaway anti-austerity party committed to overturning the latest bailout and readopting the drachma.
Before a bad-tempered parliamentary debate on a new €85bn rescue package on Thursday night, Mr Lafazanis said he felt “ashamed” by Mr Tsipras’s retreat.
“We took the decision to remain alive instead of committing suicide and complaining how unfair it was,” retorted the prime minister.
A roll-call parliamentary vote on Friday showed that a rebellion by members of Mr Lafazanis’s hardline Left Platform, Syriza’s official internal opposition, is rapidly spreading.
Out of 149 Syriza MPs, 31 voted against the package while another 11 abstained even after intense lobbying by Mr Tsipras and his team, compared with 35 defections at a previous vote in July on tough economic reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors.
The result left Syriza and its coalition partner, the small rightwing Independent Greeks party, shorn of their parliamentary majority and dependent on three pro-European opposition parties to push through in October another set of reforms required under the terms of the bailout.
A confrontation is close, say supporters of both factions, yet neither the prime minister nor Mr Lafazanis seems willing to strike a blow before an emergency Syriza party congress due to take place early in September.
Mr Tsipras sacked Mr Lafazanis from the cabinet in a partial reshuffle of his government last month but has so far made no move to expel the defectors from Syriza’s parliamentary group.
Instead, the premier’s advisers were briefing on Friday that he will throw down a challenge to Mr Lafazanis by seeking a parliamentary vote of confidence this month.
“By calling a confidence vote Tsipras is daring the Left Platform to topple the government so he can blame them for the mess that follows,” said Mujtaba Rahman, head of European analysis at the risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
“But Lafazanis is unlikely to take the bait and is instead only likely to formally break ranks with Tsipras at September’s Syriza party congress.”
Some observers have suggested that Syriza will continue to be supported by the pro-European opposition parties in an informal alliance aimed at completing structural reforms that were only partially implemented by the previous socialist and centre-right governments in charge of the first and second bailouts respectively.
But that would be a stretch for Greece’s fractious parties, even though Syriza holds a 20-point lead in opinion polls over the centre right New Democracy while Mr Tsipras’s high approval rating has not so far been dented by his policy switch.
“There’s no way we’re going to back Syriza in a vote of confidence,” said Makis Vorides, a prominent New Democracy legislator.
Several legislators in Mr Tsipras’s faction say a snap election a few weeks after the Syriza congress is the most likely outcome. A contest then would give the party an opportunity to attract enough new centre-left voters to win an outright majority, offsetting potential losses to a party Mr Lafazanis is likely to found.
“This [an election] will allow Mr Tsipras to capitalise on his growing popularity following the conclusion of this deal but before any of the bailout’s harsh measures have been implemented,” said Mr Rahman.
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