Veteran Greek leftist Panagiotis Lafazanis parted ways with his old comrade Alexis Tsipras on Friday, founding a new party dedicated to finishing off the country’s bailout before the bailout finishes off the country.
Lafazanis has led a group of dissident lawmakers in splitting from the outgoing prime minister’s Syriza party to contest a snap election which is expected next month.
With a founding membership of 25 lawmakers, the Popular Unity party immediately becomes the third biggest force in parliament behind the dominant Syriza and conservative opposition New Democracy.
Lafazanis, a 63-year-old mathematician who cut his political teeth in the struggle to oust Greece’s military rulers four decades ago, said Popular Unity aimed to restore wages and pensions cut during five years of austerity policies demanded by Greece’s foreign creditors.
It would also reject new taxes and support nationalising the banks, producing a strong investment plan and redistributing wealth in the country.
On top of all that, Greece’s huge debt burden has to be eased. “The country cannot breathe and stand on its feet unless a big part of the debt is cancelled,” he told a news conference to launch the party.
Tsipras resigned on Thursday after the Syriza rebels refused to back the new bailout programme, forcing him to rely on the opposition to get the legislation through parliament last week.
Faced with a national financial collapse, Tsipras had to agree to impose a new wave of austerity and reform policies to secure the 86 billion euros ($97 billion) in bailout loans, soon after Greeks had overwhelmingly rejected a previous offer from the euro zone and IMF in a referendum.
So far, the 25 lawmakers are dwarfed by Syriza’s parliamentary group, which numbered 149 in the 300 seat chamber before the split.
Opinion polls have yet to show how much support Popular Unity commands but Lafazanis said the referendum result would be a good guide.
“We will continue to express the spirit and substance of the 62 percent who voted ‘no’ to bailouts and a big ‘yes’ to an independent, sovereign, progressive and just Greece,” he said.
Greece suffered a depression under policies dictated by the creditors, with a quarter wiped off economic output leaving one in four workers without a job.
“The country cannot take more bailouts. We will either finish off the bailouts, or the bailouts will finish off Greece and the Greek people,” said Lafazanis.
Bespectacled and bearded, Lafazanis was never one of Tsipras’s closest colleagues. However, he got the energy portfolio as the prime minister tried to balance the various factions after Syriza’s dominant election victory in January – a job he held until his dismissal last month for rebelling.
While Lafazanis is more than 20 years older than Tsipras, they have had similar careers in left-wing politics. Both emerged from the Communist Party to join Synaspismos – Lafazanis was a founding member – a party which eventually merged into Syriza, a coalition of the radical left.
Lafazanis was first elected to parliament in 2000, but his activism goes back to the student struggle against the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 till its overthrow and the restoration of democracy in 1974.
Lafazanis described the new party as the “last consistently anti-bailout voice”. In fact it shares this distinction with the Communist KKE party and Golden Dawn, an ultra-right group. Neither is he alone in seeking debt relief, a cause championed even by the IMF.
Ironically, his wish to take the banks out of private hands has taken a step towards fulfilment under the bailout programmes. Following recapitalisations, private shareholders hold only minority stakes in three of the four major lenders.
The Hellenic Financial Stability Fund, an independent body, is expected to end up with controlling stakes in all four once another recapitalisation is carried out under the new bailout by the end of the year. The aim however, is to return the banks eventually to the private sector.