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Greece's Tsipras steps down, calls elections after tough battle on bailout

Greece's Tsipras steps down, calls elections after tough battle on bailout
People wait to cross a street as an elderly woman begs for money in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki on Aug. 18, 2015. (Giannis Papanikos / Associated Press)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced his resignation Thursday and called for elections in the wake of a bruising political battle over austerity measures demanded by the nation's creditors.

The president of the nation's supreme court, Vasiliki Thanou-Christophilou, will take over as prime minister in a caretaker government until the elections, in keeping with the constitution. She will be Greece's first female prime minister.

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"The popular mandate I received on Jan. 25 has surpassed its limits, and now the people have to have their voices heard anew," Tsipras said in a nationally televised address. "With your vote you will decide who will lead Greece, and how, on the difficult road that lies ahead."

The snap elections, called for Sept. 20, will be the third for debt-weary Greeks this year. Tsipras came to power in January at the head of an anti-austerity campaign, forming a coalition government with the Independent Greeks, a nationalist party.

On July 5, Greeks voted in a referendum on the terms of a third bailout from creditors. More than 60% of voters rejected the deal, only to have Tsipras switch positions and agree last week to a $96-billion bailout with the nation's creditors that kept Greece in the Eurozone and headed off the nation's probable default on international loans.

The prime minister has been in a difficult spot since he signed off on the bailout package. The extreme left wing of his own radical-left party, Syriza, has mounted a revolt. Led by former Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, the rebels have been criticizing the prime minister for breaking his campaign promises.

Challengers with a group called the Left Platform said they would continue fighting against the bailout agreement and, by extension, Tsipras. Bailout foe Zoe Konstantopoulou, the speaker of Parliament, is expected to join the movement, though an independent party has not yet been formed.

"The 'no' vote to the referendum has not been defeated," Demetris Stratoulis, a leader of the Left Platform, told reporters Thursday outside Parliament. "The forces of Syriza, and outside the party, will find a way to express themselves politically in this election. The struggle continues."

The leaders of the center-right New Democracy and the socialist Pasok, Syriza's parliamentary opponents, also reacted harshly to Tsipras' announcement. Vangelis Meimarakis, the head of New Democracy, said in a news conference that he would meet with leaders of the other parties Friday to seek a solution within the current Parliament, possibly circumventing elections.

"If he had succeeded, why go to elections?" Meimarakis said. "He resigned, surrendered his arms, threw in the towel. At this stage, I don't even want to meet with him."

The announcement of another round at the ballot box came hours after Greece received the first tranche — about $14.5 billion — of the three-year bailout package. The initial money allowed the country to make a $3.5-billion payment due Thursday to the European Central Bank. The remainder was earmarked to recapitalize Greece's banks, which were shut down for three weeks last month.

Without the funds from the 18 other members of the Eurozone — nations that share the euro currency — Greece probably would have defaulted on the payment.

Parliament approved the bailout agreement last week by a vote of 222 to 64, but only with the support of opposition parties.

Thirty-two members of Syriza voted against the measure and 11 lawmakers abstained, depriving the prime minister of a parliamentary majority and making it highly unlikely that the government would be able to implement the harsh austerity measures called for in the bailout agreement.

Polls released in late July by Kapa Research and Palmos Analysis showed that Tsipras enjoyed high approval ratings — almost 60% — despite his policy reversal. Some observers believe that the moment is opportune for the prime minister to take advantage of that popularity. In addition, no loan payment is due to Greece's creditors over the next month.

"It's a gamble, but not a high-stakes gamble for Tsipras. He's still a popular politician, and even if he does not get an absolute majority he'll be in a strong position to pick his coalition partner," independent Eurozone analyst Yannis Koutsomitis said. "If you have to call snap elections, this is the moment to do it."

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Minus the constant barrage of opposition within his own party, it would be easier for a victorious Tsipras to implement the measures required by the bailout agreement.

"With the 40 rebel parliament members, Mr. Tsipras can't govern. He is in the ridiculous situation of needing the vote of the opposition to pass any law that is needed," Koutsomitis said. "It will be useful for him to have a stable government."

Tsiantar is a special correspondent.

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