Friction over property tax exposes cracks in coalition’s strategy
Although the government passed its latest amendments to the troubled single property tax (ENFIA) on Thursday, the atmosphere surrounding the ballot underlined that all is not well within the coalition, according to the news and policy site MacroPolis.gr.
Parliament is still in its summer sessions, so the 51 out of 100 votes the ENFIA changes received was just enough for the government. But the result only came about after the coalition switched eight of its MPs. During the summer sessions, parties are allowed to replace their lawmakers with those from the remaining pool of 200 MPs.
The government said that only one of the eight MPs (PASOK’s Nikos Sifounakis) was substituted because he opposed the amendments. However, lawmakers’ comments and media reports indicated there was much wider discontent among coalition MPs, who felt the government had not gone far enough to correct ENFIA’s initial errors and ease the burden on a range of homeowners, including those with empty houses.
For instance one of the other MPs that was replaced, New Democracy’s Lefteris Avgenakis, had spoken out against ENFIA before the vote. The government insisted that he and another six deputies were replaced because they were unable to attend the vote for a range of reasons. Regardless of whether the coalition’s assertions are true or just a smokescreen, the image portrayed is of a government struggling to keep its MPs on message.
There have been reports of arguments within the New Democracy parliamentary group. One conservative MP was forced to apologise after swearing at a Finance Ministry official during a row over ENFIA. ND’s parliamentary spokesman, Adonis Georgiadis, went as far as to suggest that Finance Minister Gikas Hardouvelis should resign if he is unable to stand by the tax and ensure it is implemented. It is clear that Hardouvelis’s brief honeymoon since being appointed to the cabinet in June is over but last week’s developments have wider significance, especially when one considers that the government wants to create some cohesion ahead of the presidential vote in March. Most of what the government will be doing over the next few months will be aimed at securing the 180 votes it needs to elect a successor to President Karolos Papoulias and avoid early elections.
As things stand, the coalition is in a tight spot. Apart from the discomfort in its own ranks, which is unlikely to lead to an outright rebellion, the numbers do not yet add up in terms of opposition MPs. The government has 154 lawmakers so it needs to get at least another 26 on board. The two most likely sources for these votes are Democratic Left (DIMAR) and the large group of independent MPs. DIMAR has ten MPs, while the independents number 24 – six who defected from Independent Greeks, six from DIMAR, five from PASOK, four from New Democracy, two from Golden Dawn and one from SYRIZA.
Even if the government can secure the ten DIMAR votes, garnering another 16 from such a varied group of independents is not a straightforward task, especially as six of the 24 have said they intend to vote against any government candidate.
The other option open to the government is to pick a candidate that would appeal to the Independent Greeks, who have 13 seats in Parliament. The thinking is that a centre-right or right-wing candidate might attract the support of the nationalist party and some independents. Again, though, the numbers are very tight. Moreover, this plan seems like a non-starter because Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos indicated this week that his party would not back any candidate because he believes Greece needs to hold national elections.
The third option for the government is to nominate a non-political candidate who would be able to command the respect of a wide range of MPs. Reports have mentioned academic Helene Ahrweiler (also known as Eleni Glykatzi- Ahrweiler) and film director Costa Gavras as possible candidates.
A fourth option has been put forward by former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. Sources close to the ex-New Democracy leader have suggested that he has advised current premier Antonis Samaras to bring the presidential election forward - possibly as early as November - to avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty. Consensus on a candidate could perhaps be achieved by the parties agreeing on a date for early elections at a later stage.
Karamanlis faced a similar situation to Samaras in 2009, when PASOK made it clear it would oppose any presidential candidate put forward in 2010. Then, the New Democracy government only had 151 MPs and PASOK’s stance was a catalyst in Karamanlis opting for national elections in October 2009, which led to a landslide defeat for his party.