ATHENS — Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou appeared to be close to resigning Sunday, with top advisers and cabinet members urging that a new government be put in place soon.
Papandreou has been seeking a broad coalition government since winning a confidence vote Saturday, but the main opposition party has refused to join with him so long as he remains head of the country. Top officials from the ruling Socialist party said Sunday that they were seeking to have a new government in place by the time European financial meetings are held Monday.
Papandreou was meeting Sunday evening with Antonis Samaras, the head of the main opposition party, to discuss forming a coalition. “I am not interested in staying on in this new government as prime minister,” Papandreou told a cabinet meeting hours earlier Sunday, the Associated Press reported. “I couldn’t have been clearer. I don’t play games and neither do I gamble the country’s fortunes.”
But it remained unclear when Papandreou would resign, who might succeed him and how broad the coalition would be — a key measure for European leaders on Greece’s willingness to make painful reforms that are a requirement of the bailout agreement settled in late October.
“Everything must be done within the day; otherwise tomorrow it will be hell,” Reuters quoted a senior Socialist deputy, Telemachos Hitiris, as saying Sunday.
On Sunday morning, government spokesman Elias Mossialos told state-run NET TV that the parties were seeking resolution by day’s end.
“It would be useful today, tomorrow at the latest, to have agreed on the name of the new prime minister as well,” he said.
But the leader of the main New Democrats opposition party reiterated Sunday his demand that Papandreou step down before a coalition deal is reached. He was “determined to help,” Bloomberg reported Samaras as saying.
To many Athenians, their on-again, off-again option to vote out the euro was just the latest example of politicians caring more about their own future than about the good of the country.
The bailout referendum that Papandreou proposed last week, only to quickly backtrack after his supporters rebelled, was hardly a real choice, they said.
“It was wrong not to have asked two years ago,” said Costas Soulas, 58, a tools wholesaler who said that his income has dropped by two-thirds since the crisis started in 2009. “Greeks are angry now, and desperate,” Soulas said. “They won’t say no to Europe — they’ll say no to the politicians.”
Greek polls show a solid majority of support for staying on the euro, but the country’s European creditors say it can do so only if it implements austerity measures that are deeply unpopular. Papandreou’s unexpected announcement last week to hold the referendum was intended to show Greeks what was at stake, he said.
Some here thought the referendum might have been a good idea.
“It was a little risky,” said Anna Damianidi, 58, a retired freelance journalist who was sitting at a market in the working-class Athens neighborhood of Psiri on Saturday. “But maybe we could have worked very hard and explained to people why they needed the euro. That could have been good” for boosting the legitimacy of the bailout plans, she said.
On Saturday, much remained unresolved, including whether Papandreou would stay on as leader. He met at midday with the country’s president to discuss a new coalition. It seemed increasingly likely that a coalition, if there is one, would be with smaller parties, sapping its power to push through the unpopular austerity measures.
In remarks in front of reporters before he and President Karolos Papoulias entered private talks, Papandreou said that without a unity government, Europe’s willingness to help the country could still be at risk.
“My aim is to immediately create a government of cooperation,” Papandreou said, according to the Reuters news service. “A lack of consensus would worry our European partners over our country’s will to stay in the euro zone.”
Concerned European officials said privately Saturday that the main opposition New Democracy party’s unwillingness to join with the Socialists was a troubling sign that Greece’s commitment to the bailout plan may not prove lasting.
The Greek bailout is far from a done deal. The troika of inspectors from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are watching the political horse trading with caution and may not approve the payout of the next installment of the bailout funds. And the new bailout package approved at the end of October will need to be authorized by Greece’s Parliament — a more likely prospect than it was early last week but still not ensured.
But for some there was little hope, no matter the outcome.
“We go home, and we see the refrigerator is empty,” said Erik Kola, 31, an unemployed restaurant worker who was sitting on the plaza outside the Parliament building Saturday as politicians wrangled within. He said he competes with hundreds every time he applies for a job. “I want to choose the best that could be,” he said. “If that means leaving the euro, fine.”