PM Tsipras and ND leader Mitsotakis crossed swords in Parliament over the state of the country’s pensions system

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis crossed swords in Parliament on Tuesday night for the first time since the latter took over as conservative chief.

The two leaders traded accusations over the state of the country’s pensions system, but amid the arguing Tsipras also left the door open to the possibility of a cross-party dialogue on the reforms needed.

“The pension system is not sustainable,” said Tsipras. “We are having this discussion today because if we do not change course, the funds will collapse and we will not be able to pay pensions.”

Mitsotakis, though, insisted that the pension system was sustainable in 2014, before SYRIZA came to power. Tsipras argued that prior failings by New Democracy and PASOK had brought the pension system to its knees.

“We are being forced to clean your dirty laundry,” said the premier.

He insisted that the government’s proposal, which focuses on increases to social security contributions, is the fairest one.

“Do you have a proposal?” he asked Mitsotakis. “Or will you fall in line with the International Monetary Fund in the name of some pseudo-technocratic obsession that will lead to new pension cuts?”

Nevertheless, Tsipras called on New Democracy to take part in a discussion about pension reforms. He also said his government is open to discussing farmers’ concerns. Farmers have gradually been stepping up their protests around Greece, objecting to tax and social security contribution increases.

Mitsotakis appeared to catch the government off guard by suggesting that its pension proposals are “in the right direction” as they are based on measures taken by previous governments.

However, he also proposed the creation of three pension funds, rather than the one put forward by the coalition as he believes this will not be manageable. He also called for the implementation of the zero deficit rule for supplementary pensions and a clampdown on undeclared labor. The New Democracy leader also urged the government to reverse the recent pay rises announced for some civil servants.

“Abandon this plan,” he told Tsipras. “The dilemma lies between populism and the difficult reforms that have to be undertaken,” added Mitsotakis, who admitted that previous governments had failed to recognize the pension problems and that it was wrong of New Democracy to oppose the reforms proposed by the PASOK administration led by Costas Simitis in 2001.

As the parliamentary debate started, members of two major labor unions staged separate protests in the capital, drawing thousands of workers to the streets.

The two main rallies in Athens, organized by the civil servants’ union ADEDY and the Communist Party-affiliated union PAME, set the stage for what are expected to be larger protests next Thursday when ADEDY and the private sector workers’ union GSEE have called a general strike to protest the government’s plans for pension reform.

State hospital workers staged a protest outside the Finance Ministry in central Athens. Meanwhile there was upheaval in Thessaloniki with engineers blocking the entrance to the offices of the social security fund representing their profession in a symbolic protest against the reforms.

Notaries are among those walking off the job on Wednesday, along with street market vendors, all protesting changes to social security legislation. The national union representing Greek doctors has called on its members to strike Wednesday and Thursday.