Greece opposition seeks debt repayment delay

Associated Press
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Greek left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras speaks about the Greek economy at the annual conference of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens, on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. Greece is planning to spend up to €10 billion ($13 billion) in a bond buyback program that it hopes will help bring its debt under control. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The leader of the anti-bailout party that is leading opinion polls in Greece has called for a delay in the repayment of the country's rescue loans until the recession, which is headed for its sixth year, is over.

Alexis Tsipras, who heads the main opposition Radical Left Coalition Party, argued Tuesday that the austerity policies pursued by the three-party coalition government would continue to weaken Greece's economy and leave the country ever-more reliant on emergency loans from its euro partners and the International Monetary Fund.

"What we ask for is time," Tsipras told a financial conference in Athens. "We ask for a suspension — a moratorium — of servicing the debt until the country returns to a course of growth, so that we can mobilize resources, restart the economy, and bring growth."

"The recovery of the Greek economy ... means that in the future we will have the ability to pay back the money — at least a significant amount — that foreign countries, European countries, have lent to Greece," he added.

Greece has been dependent on international rescue loans since May 2010, and in return imposed drastic spending cuts and tax increases that have seen economic output slump by more than 20 percent and driven the rate of unemployment up to 25 percent.

Tsipras' comments come just a week after Greece got slightly better terms for its bailout loans and debt reduction plan and appear to mark a subtle change in approach from his previous more unilateral rhetoric.

Tsipras said the new terms set out by the IMF and its 16 euro partners fell short of a viable solution. As part of the revised package, Greece has launched a bond buyback program worth €10 billion ($13 billion) that is aimed at trimming its debt load to a more sustainable level.

"Unfortunately, they have postponed reaching a lasting settlement for the country's debt and crisis," he said. "This will only extend the uncertainty."

The 38-year-old Tsipras saw a five-fold increase in popular support for his party between general elections in 2009 and June 2012, with a campaign attacking Greece's political establishment and economic austerity.

The conservative-led government says his policies are populist and unrealistic and would see Greece default on its debt and leave the eurozone. It argues that his party — an often-squabbling alliance of a dozen small left-wing groups — is not ready to govern.

Tsipras, who has led opinion polls for about three months, insisted that it was.

"Our program is based on the intention to renegotiate the (bailout) agreement with our partners — not to repeat the causes of the crisis but to deal with them," he said. "We are ready to assume the responsibility of government."

The Radical Left Coalition is widely expected to overhaul its internal rules at a party conference early next year, adopting a more centralized structure.