Greeks protest over austerity
Tens of thousands of Greeks shouting anti-government slogans flooded into the main square before parliament yesterday, in a massive show of anger against lawmakers due to narrowly pass an austerity package to win aid from lenders.
Prime minister Antonis Samaras was expected to barely eke out a win for the budget cuts, tax hikes and labour reforms in the parliamentary vote, despite opposition from a small party in his conservative-liberal coalition.
As evening fell, Greeks holding flags and banners carrying slogans such as “It’s them or us!” and “End this disaster!” packed the square. More than 70,000 protesters poured into the streets of Athens in one of the largest rallies in months, police said.
Public transport was halted; schools, banks and government offices were shut; and garbage was piling up on streets on the second day of a two-day nationwide strike to protest against the vote. “These measures are killing us little by little and lawmakers in there don’t give a damn,” said Maria Aliferopoulou, a 52-year-old mother of two living on €1,000 a month.
“They are rich, they have everything and we have nothing and are fighting for crumbs, for survival.”
A No vote could spell bankruptcy for Greece and disaster for Mr Samaras’s fragile coalition, which fought off an early challenge by the opposition Syriza party to block the 500-odd-page Bill by forcing a vote on its constitutionality.
Backed by the leftist opposition, unions say the measures will hit the poor and spare the wealthy, while deepening a five-year recession that has wiped out one-fifth of the country’s output and driven unemployment to a record 25 per cent.
Mr Samaras has said the package will comprise the last cuts to wages and pensions.
With the vote just hours away, lawmakers were in heated debate over the cuts and tax hikes expected to be worth €13.5 billion. The package is required to unlock a loan tranche of more than €31 billion from the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout.
The vote is the biggest test for Mr Samaras’s government since it came to power in June. A Yes would give Athens cash to shore up its ailing banks and pay off debt due this month.
EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn called on the Greek parliament to do its part in securing its next tranche of bailout aid by passing the measures.
Greeks have expressed outrage at the lacklustre approach governments have taken towards catching tax cheats. Following the publishing last month of a list of more than 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, the Swiss government said it was looking to clinch a swift deal with Athens on taxing secret holdings.
The austerity measures are accompanied by steps to make it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers, including reductions to severance pay and the warning time employers must give workers before they let them go.
The junior ruling Democratic Left party has refused to support these, saying they undermine labour rights. Several MPs from the second ruling party, socialist Pasok, have also wavered.
Mr Samaras’s New Democracy and Pasok MPs should be able to push the measures through, with 155 of parliament’s 300 seats.
The small leftist party has said it will back the 2013 budget in a vote on Sunday, a second hurdle Greece must clear to receive the aid.