ATHENS — Greece’s outspoken finance minister said Thursday he would resign if his country votes “yes” in a referendum on Europe’s bailout proposal, offering the clearest indication that the government’s future is on the line in the Sunday vote.
If the country sides with the radical leftist government and votes “no,” Yanis Varoufakis said, negotiations with Europe could restart immediately. But a “yes” vote, he told Bloomberg TV, means he will step down by Monday.
Varoufakis declined to speculate whether Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would also resign if the Greek people buck the government’s will. But his comments reinforce a growing view that the vote has become a referendum on Greece’s five-month-old government — as well as a potentially decisive turn in the long saga over whether Greece will be able to stay inside the euro zone.
Regardless of the outcome, one of Greece’s major creditors — the International Monetary Fund — predicted that the country will need even more cash from euro zone countries and other sources over the next three years.
The forecast blamed Tsipras’s government for dragging down the Greek economy with steps such as halting privatization plans. The IMF estimated that Greece would need 60 billion euros in bailout funds through 2018 to fill the gaps — adding to its already massive debt load of more than 300 billion euros.
The referendum is an end-game gamble by Tsipras’s government, which has rejected the tough spending cuts demanded by its European partners in exchange for reviving the financial rescue package that has kept the country afloat.
Tsipras signaled Wednesday that he had softened his line on some of the core belt-tightening measures — such as further cuts to state pensions — but he also has urged voters to reject the package and try to force new negotiations.
Across Europe, however, the referendum is widely viewed as a no-win situation for Greece, which on Tuesday became the first developed nation to miss an IMF repayment deadline.
If the result is a “no,” then Europe has threatened to expel Greece from the euro zone — an outcome that most Greeks want to avoid. If it’s “yes,” the government could fall and be replaced by one that is more amenable to compromise.
“There will be no talks in the coming days,” Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem told reporters Wednesday evening. “We will simply await now the outcome of the referendum on Sunday,” he said.
Asked Thursday whether Europe is seeking a leadership change in Athens, Varoufakis appeared to coyly agree, citing a line from the British version of the political drama “House of Cards.”
“You may very well think that,” Varoufakis said. “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
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Global markets have closely watched the showdown play out in Greece, but exchanges have largely stabilized after a drop earlier in the week.
Asian and European markets were higher Thursday as solid U.S. jobs data took prominence over worries about Greek debt. Wall Street was flat.
Greek leaders, meanwhile, tried to make their case that rejecting the cuts-for-cash package would ultimately strengthen the country’s negotiating power. The strategy is built on the idea that keeping Greece in the euro zone is less painful for the European Union than a potentially messy break.
Forecasts suggest the referendum outcome is still too close to call.
But the finance minister Varoufakis showed no outward concern, telling reporters that a new bailout deal is a “certainty.”
“Doesn’t Europe know what is in its best interest?” he said.
In an address Wednesday, Tsipras said Greece will be back at the negotiating table after the referendum, seeking “better terms for the Greek people.”
Meanwhile, Greece’s banking system continued to teeter on the brink of collapse.
The European Central Bank, which controls a vital stream of emergency cash to Greece’s banks, opted Wednesday to keep the banks in limbo — neither slashing support nor increasing it. The decision means the banks’ fate will be determined only after the referendum.
Greece’s banks have been closed to preserve their dwindling cash reserves, and Greeks have been limited to withdrawing 60 euros, or about $67, per day from ATMs. Varoufakis said banks would reopen Tuesday.