ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece’s new finance minister resigned on Monday due to ill health, throwing the government’s drive to soften the terms of an international bailout into confusion less than a week after it took office.
Vassilis Rapanos, 64, chairman of the National Bank of Greece, was rushed to hospital on Friday before he could be sworn in, complaining of abdominal pain, nausea and dizziness.
The mild-mannered banker, who was imprisoned by a military junta in the 1970s, has a history of ill-health.
The office of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who only took office last Wednesday following a June 17 election, said Rapanos’s resignation on health grounds had been accepted.
Rapanos said in his resignation letter: “Following discussions with my physicians, I have concluded that my health would not at the moment allow me to carry out my duties fully”.
Samaras has only just emerged from hospital himself after undergoing eye surgery to repair a damaged retina. Both he and Rapanos had already said they would not be able to attend the June 28-29 European summit.
It was a worryingly chaotic start for the new government, formed after the second election in a month and facing huge domestic opposition to a harsh international bailout and steadfast European opposition to any watering down of its terms.
Only hours before Rapanos’s resignation, a hospital bulletin said he would be discharged on Tuesday. He had undergone a gastroscopy and colonoscopy, an official at the Hygeia Hospital told Reuters on condition of anonymity. The tests “showed everything is completely normal”, it said.
According to a source from one of the three parties in the new coalition government, Rapanos had been under heavy pressure from his family to turn down a job in which he would have been charged with negotiating a softening of the bailout terms.
Earlier on Monday the three party leaders had announced a trans-Atlantic roadshow to try to persuade sceptical lenders to give them more time to repay the country’s massive debt.
The medical problems of Samaras and Rapanos had also forced a postponement of the first meeting between the new government and Greece’s “troika” of international lenders, originally slated for Monday. A new date has not been set.
Samaras’s government, an unlikely alliance of right and left that emerged from the June 17 election, has promised angry Greeks it will soften the punishing terms of a bailout saving them from bankruptcy in exchange for deep economic pain. But euro zone paymaster Germany has rejected major concessions.
Berlin signalled on Monday that Europe would wait for the troika’s report on Greece before taking any decisions on how to make adjustments to the bailout package to compensate for weeks of political paralysis and a deeper than expected recession.
Samaras, 61, emerged from hospital on Monday with a bandage over one eye. He was under orders not to fly or make the long road trip to Brussels, doctors said.
Speaking to Mega TV earlier, government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said Rapanos told Samaras on Friday, after being offered the job, that he had a “chronic situation” that he had learned to live with and would be able to do the job.
Kedikoglou later said the government was not expected to name a replacement for Rapanos on Monday. A senior official from one of the coalition parties said a new finance minister was likely to be announced on Tuesday.
The government said Samaras and the leaders of his two coalition allies - the Socialist PASOK and smaller Democratic Left - would take their case for renegotiating the bailout conditions to Europe and the United States as soon as the prime minister was well enough.
At the two-day EU summit starting on Thursday, Greece will be represented by Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos and outgoing Finance Minister George Zanias in a delegation headed by President Karolos Papoulias.
Avramopoulos and Zanias met on Monday to discuss tactics, working from a government programme that calls for tax cuts, extra help for the poor and unemployed, a freeze on public sector lay-offs and two more years to bring Greece’s deficit under control.
Much of this programme, announced by the coalition over the weekend, would unravel basic elements of a bailout agreement reached with lenders as recently as March.
“We have facts and data to show the medicine is not working,” a government official, who declined to be named, said after the Avramopoulos-Zanias meeting. “The recession is very deep and unemployment (at almost 23 percent) is very high.”
He warned of “long and tough” negotiations. “Our primary aim will be to reinvigorate the economy and provide relief to the sectors of society that are hurting the most.”
The coalition of Samaras’s conservative New Democracy, PASOK and the small Democratic Left party faces an emboldened opposition committed to tearing up the terms of the bailout if it ever gets into power.
Critics and much of the population argue that the terms are only driving Greece ever deeper into recession and fraying the edges of society. But Germany is unsympathetic, frustrated by the slow pace of reform in Greece.
Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis, Lefteris Papadimas, George Georgiopoulos, Deepa Babington and Tatiana Fragou; writing by Barry Moody; editing by Philippa Fletcher