ITZEHOE, Germany (Reuters) - Since Mark Helfrich was elected to the German parliament in 2013, the conservative lawmaker has voted to extend Greece’s bailout program on three occasions. But he won’t be saying ‘yes’ a fourth time.
The 36-year-old from Itzehoe, a town in the northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, has declared he will reject a third aid package for Greece, saying he has lost all trust in the Athens government as a serious negotiating partner.
Although Chancellor Angela Merkel’s allies have played up the deal, agreed on Monday after marathon talks in Brussels, Helfrich’s willingness to rebel underscores the deep mistrust felt by Germans toward the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras.
Voters in Helfrich’s constituency have applauded his hardline stance, urging him in emails and via posts on his Facebook page to send a signal that Greece cannot keep getting away with flouting the rules.
“Many people have approached me and said they think it’s great that someone finally dares to stray from the public line and even vote ‘no’ when the parliamentary group expects you to vote ‘yes’,” Helfrich told Reuters in an interview.
German lawmakers will be recalled from recess on Friday to authorize the opening of loan negotiations with Athens once the Greek parliament has approved the program.
The Bundestag, the lower house, is expected to give a green light to the talks, not least due to support from the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s junior coalition partner, and opposition Greens.
But the chancellor’s authority within her own party is at stake. While politicians backed an extension of Greece’s second bailout at the last vote in February, a record number of conservative dissenters showed how lawmakers were losing patience with the anti-austerity Syriza government.
Of 32 “no” votes, 29 came from Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU). Moreover, 109 conservatives, including Helfrich, signed statements saying they had voted for the extension but with reservations.
Underscoring the mood of scepticism, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Tuesday that some in the German government would have preferred a temporary Greek exit from the euro.
As lawmakers weigh up how to cast their ballots this time, Reuters met six voters in a cafe in Helfrich’s constituency to try to gauge the popular mood.
Not everyone in the group -- a former bank manager, a farmer, a town administrator, a teacher, a local mayoress and a retired printer -- opposed more aid for Greece. But they agreed things shouldn’t be allowed to proceed along the same course.
“Each of us sitting around this table has mentally written off the 300-odd billion, haven’t we? The question is what happens next?” said Simon Schlueter, a 32-year-old farmer.
“For me personally, it’s about making sure that the saga doesn’t go on as it has done until now and at the moment it looks that way.”
Several were skeptical that the current Greek administration was capable of properly enacting the reforms required.
“Greece doesn’t have a functioning tax system, they don’t have a functioning land registry. How does it want to accomplish all these reforms?” said Christoph Lauff, a 59-year-old teacher.
“That’s why I‘m very, very skeptical that this current decision will be anything more than a stop-gap that provides some breathing space,” he added.
Volker Nielsen, a 50-year-old town administrator and mayor whose district is half-way through a rigorous budget consolidation program, is fed up with the Greek “circus”.
“When the first condition of the third aid package is not kept, no matter how small the condition is, I‘m in favor of the euro zone countries saying, ‘now it’s over.'”
Headlines in Greek newspapers following Monday’s deal laced with references to World War Two did not improve the mood.
Marion Gaudlitz, 50, also mayor of a local municipality, wants the Greek government to stop making accusations and start sticking to the rules.
“There’s a huge longing to get to a point where we can sensibly work with each other once again. It requires fairness and that everyone pays heed to the rules,” she said.
A survey for Germany’s ARD broadcaster on Monday evening found 52 percent of respondents believed further financial support for Greece was right, while 44 percent did not.
Lauff hopes some ‘no’ votes will show just how uneasy some Germans are with the current situation.
“We shouldn’t be under any illusion, parliament will vote for it, but we hope that Mrs Merkel gets a clear signal, it won’t work this way.”
Editing by Giles Elgood