Greeks march to parliament as lawmakers vote on austerity
By Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas | November 8, 2012 4:42 AM EST
Tens of thousands of Greeks shouting anti-government slogans flooded into the main square before parliament on Wednesday, in a massive show of anger against lawmakers due to narrowly pass an austerity package to win aid from lenders.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to barely eke out a win for the budget cuts, tax hikes and labour reforms in the parliamentary vote late on Wednesday evening, despite opposition from a small party in his conservative-liberal coalition.
As evening fell, Greeks holding flags and banners like "It's them or us!" and "End this disaster!" packed the main square before parliament. 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, called 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 euros 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 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 a fifth of the country's output and driven unemployment to a record 25 percent.
Samaras has said the package will comprise the last cuts to wages and pensions. But that is cold comfort for many Greeks, whose living standards have plunged in repeated deficit-slashing schemes that have hit wage earners and retirees hardest.
With the vote just hours away, lawmakers were locked in a heated debate over the cuts and tax hikes expected to be worth 13.5 billion euros. The package is required to unlock a loan tranche of more than 31 billion euros ($40 billion) from the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout.
The vote is the biggest test for Samaras's government since it came to power in June. A 'yes' will give Athens cash to shore up its ailing banks and pay off debt coming due late 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.
But in a country where five years of recession have destroyed 20 percent of output and one in four workers is unemployed, people say they cannot take any more cuts.
"You live in constant fear and uncertainty. You never know what's waiting for you around the corner," said Panos Goutsis, 58, who works in a small corner shop in Athens.
"How many times will they tell us these are the last measures? We're sick of hearing it."
Greeks have also expressed outrage at the lacklustre approach consecutive governments have taken towards catching tax cheats, with many saying officials have dragged their feet on investigations to protect a wealthy elite.
Following the publishing last month of a list of more than 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, the Swiss government said on Wednesday it was looking to clinch a swift deal with Athens on taxing secret holdings.
"GUN TO MY HEAD"
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 already eroded labour rights. Several MPs from the second ruling party, Socialist PASOK, have also wavered. But in a late boost for the government, one Socialist lawmaker who had been non-committal so far said she would reluctantly back the measures.
"I am voting with a gun to my head, because those who designed these measures have not left us any alternative," Theodora Tzakri, a PASOK deputy, told parliament. "I am telling you though that it will be the last time. From now on, I will oppose every effort to impoverish the Greek people."
The Democratic Left has pledged to show some symbolic solidarity with coalition partners by voting "present" rather than "no". Samaras's New Democracy and the remaining PASOK MPs should be able to push the measures through anyway, with around 155 of parliament's 300 seats.
The small leftist party has also said it will back the 2013 budget in a vote on Sunday, a second hurdle Greece must clear to receive the aid tranche.
The protests will put deputies under added pressure, as throngs of detractors are expected to gather on parliament's doorstep in Syntagma Square, frequently the site of violent clashes between black-hooded demonstrators and police.
"They've taken everything we have - our money, our jobs, our lives - and they won't stop until they've finished us off to satisfy the Europeans," said Popi Alexaki, 40, a former dental nurse who lost her job in August.
"They make me sick. Enough, enough, enough!" ($1 = 0.7823 euros)
(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris,; Writing by Michael Winfrey and Deepa Babington; Editing by Peter Graff)