Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, faces a confidence vote in parliament next week after the ruling Syriza party’s coalition partner announced it was pulling out of the government.
The move by Independent Greeks (Anel), a small rightwing nationalist party, had been expected since Panos Kammenos, the defence minister and Anel leader, declared his opposition to Greece’s naming deal with neighbouring Macedonia.
Mr Kammenos’s decision to leave the four-year-old coalition came after the Skopje parliament voted on Friday to approve constitutional changes renaming the country the Republic of North Macedonia and opening the way for it to begin talks this year on joining Nato and the EU.
Since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, Greece has blocked the country in international forums, arguing that its name entailed territorial ambitions on the neighbouring Greek province of Macedonia. Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s prime minister, and Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime minister, made resolving the dispute a priority over the past 12 months.
But nationalists in both countries have been up against the deal, which has yet to be ratified by the Greek parliament.
“The issue of Macedonia is such that I can’t avoid stepping down from my cabinet post,” Mr Kammenos said after meeting with Mr Tsipras at the premier’s office on Sunday.
“It’s with a heavy heart that we won’t back the confidence votes since it will lead to the Prespa agreement [on Macedonia’s name] taking effect,” he added.
Mr Tsipras said he accepted Mr Kammenos’s resignation and would accept those of other Anel cabinet members. He said the armed forces chief of staff would take over as defence minister.
The Greek premier faces a challenging task to rally enough votes for Syriza to win the confidence vote. His party controls 146 out of 300 seats in parliament and was counting on support from the small centre-left Potami party and Anel dissidents in order to ratify the Macedonia agreement.
It was unclear how many of Anel’s seven lawmakers would vote against the confidence motion. At a party meeting on Friday, only two backed Mr Kammenos’s position, according to Greek media reports.
A parliamentary spokesman said the confidence debate would begin on Tuesday with a vote to be taken on Thursday.
Provided the government survives, Mr Tsipras is expected to present the Prespa deal for approval by parliament immediately after the confidence vote
Syriza officials said on Sunday they felt confident the government would win the confidence vote. “The government has already been working for weeks to build a majority on the Prespa agreement and actually that is harder to do than round up support for a vote of confidence,” one said.
Evangelos Venizelos, a political commentator and former foreign minister, said he was certain Mr Tsipras would be able to secure the five additional votes needed to stay in power and push through the Prespa agreement.
“It’s clear Mr Tsipras has made his arrangements, talked to his contacts and captured some Anel deputies, plus some deputies from other small political parties that aren’t based on traditional values,” Mr Venizelos said.
But analysts said Anel’s decision to pull out raised the prospect of a general election in May, five months before the government’s term expires in October. “Effectively there’ll be a minority government from next week, which suggests the government may opt for its Plan B — to hold an election in May to coincide with the European parliamentary elections,” said Costas Iordanides, a commentator on newspaper Kathimerini.
Despite their ideological differences, Mr Tsipras and Mr Kammenos have enjoyed a smooth working relationship since they unexpectedly formed an coalition after Syriza narrowly failed to win an outright parliamentary majority at the January 2015 general election.
Their parties teamed up again following a second election in October 2015, to the surprise of Greece’s EU partners, several of whom urged Mr Tsipras to break with Anel and instead form a coalition with the pro-reform Potami party to implement the country’s third bailout programme.
Get alerts on Greek politics when a new story is published