ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's co-ruling Socialist PASOK party expelled one of its most popular deputies on Monday, deepening the rifts within the second biggest partner in the debt-ridden country's coalition.
PASOK dismissed Andreas Loverdos, who has been long estranged with the party's leadership, after the 56-year old former health minister announced the launch of a new political group that could rival the Socialists.
"Mr. Loverdos has made his choice... he is no longer a member of PASOK's parliamentary committee," PASOK leader and former finance minister Evangelos Venizelos said in a statement.
Loverdos' dismissal brought the parliamentary majority of the ruling coalition to 166 seats in the 300-seat assembly.
The move deepens the internal crisis of PASOK but is not expected to affect the three-way coalition led by conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, analysts said. Loverdos said he would continue to back the government.
"I support this government. It is my national and political duty," Loverdos said.
The Socialists have seen their popularity plummeting after they signed a deeply unpopular European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout in 2010. Their poll ratings have slipped to about 6 percent from 43 percent in 2009, when they last won elections.
Loverdos, who supported the country's bailout in a key parliamentary vote earlier this month, is the eighth deputy to leave PASOK since the party was trounced in a June election that brought Samaras to power.
As a health and labor minister in 2009-2011, he increased the retirement age and slashed pensions in a crucial reform of the country's ailing pension system.
No other PASOK deputies have said so far they would join him or the new group called RIKKSY -- the Greek word for "Rupture". The group said in a statement it would seek to form a "reformist, European and social democratic party."
(Reporting by Renee Maltezou. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)