Greek finance minister faces axe

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iol news pic mar31 Greece Financial Crisis~1 AP Customers queue outside one of the few pharmacies open in Athens. Greece's pharmacies closed in opposition to a bailout-reform bill approved by parliament, to deregulate store licenses. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Athens - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras will reshuffle his cabinet as early as this week in a bid to wrest back political momentum, and his widely respected finance minister could be among those set to depart, government officials told Reuters on Monday.

Samaras, whose conservative party lost the EU election last month to the radical leftist Syriza, is expected to use the reshuffle to show Greeks he has heeded their message at the ballot, which was seen as a test of faith in the government.

All eyes are on whether economist Yannis Stournaras, who has led negotiations with Greece's EU/IMF lenders and is credited with spearheading the country's return to fiscal discipline after it nearly went bankrupt, will remain as finance minister.

Four government officials said Samaras was discussing whether to keep Stournaras in the job, with one official saying it had been decided that he would leave, though the others cautioned that no final decision had been made yet.

Stournaras himself is eager to leave the finance ministry after the twin successes of returning Athens to the bond market after four years and reporting a primary budget surplus, though he is also considered best placed to lead crucial debt relief talks later this year, two other senior officials told Reuters.

“The finance ministry, which is crucial, and ministries handling social policies are expected to be the portfolios most affected,” one of the four government sources said.

“It makes sense for Stournaras to leave after completing a series of tasks, with things coming full circle in terms of saving the country and achieving the bailout targets. But handling the debt talks also remains an open issue.”

If he were to leave, Stournaras is expected to go to the Bank of Greece, where governor George Provopoulos's term expires on June 21, two of the government officials said.

“The key decision in the reshuffle is that of the position of the finance minister. We should expect an announcement from Thursday onwards,” one of the other government officials said.

None of the four sources said who might replace Stournaras.

Stournaras himself has so far said nothing on the issue other than that it was Samaras's decision. Asked last week whether he would draft the budget later this year, he said: “This is for the prime minister to decide.”

Party officials say the reshuffle could also offer Samaras an opportunity to lure back defecting lawmakers to provide more explicit support to the ruling coalition, which has only a two-seat majority in the 300-seat parliament.

Former coalition lawmakers who are now independent are among those considered potential candidates for various ministerial posts.

Samaras, who has led an unwieldy right-left coalition of his New Democracy conservatives and Socialist PASOK party since 2012, has been on the back foot since Syriza triumphed in the EU vote, propelled to victory by voters' angry about austerity measures imposed at the behest of EU/IMF lenders.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos confirmed that a reshuffle was on the cards but gave no details.


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