Greece to See Further Protests as Austerity Vote Looms
Country was gripped by a general strike Wednesday for a second day
Elinda Labropoulou and Laura Smith-Spark CNN
November 07, 2012
Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to take to the streets of the capital later to demonstrate against further cuts.
Greek media are anticipating a cliffhanger in parliament late Wednesday night, with passage of the austerity measures expected by just a handful of votes. Parliament's economic affairs committee approved the bill late Tuesday.
If legislators do not pass the austerity measures, it will endanger the payout of the next international bailout installment of 31.5 billion euros, which the government desperately needs to stay in operation. Without the funds, it says, it will run out of money by mid-November.
But Greeks are furious about the effects of multiple rounds of belt-tightening, which have resulted in cuts to pensions and pay and seen unemployment in Greece's fifth year of recession soar to more than 25%.
More than one-fifth of the population could face poverty, defined as a family of four on an income of 13,842 euros (about $17,500) per year, state news agency AMNA has reported.
Police estimated that 35,000 people joined a peaceful protest Tuesday, in what some analysts characterized as a "dress rehearsal" for Wednesday's rally, which is timed to coincide with the lawmakers' vote.
Ahead of the latest demonstration, the streets around Athens' central Syntagma Square -- the scene of many violent confrontations between police and protesters in past months -- were eerily quiet.
There were no taxis or buses in the streets, but posters calling on people to take part in the rally were plastered on almost every lamppost. Metro and suburban railway services resumed Wednesday afternoon, but the 48-hour strike continues to paralyze many other businesses and public services.
Under the bill, which sets out reforms and fiscal measures worth 13.5 billion euros over the next two years, the retirement age will rise from 65 to 67. Pensions will also be cut on average between 5% and 15%.
Some salaries in the public sector will be reduced by about a third, and several bonuses will be scrapped.
The thorniest issue is that of labor law changes.
The bill gives the government the right to set the minimum wage as of April of next year. It also reduces the redundancy notice period -- the time given to workers to leave their jobs after being laid off -- and limits compensation for workers with more than 16 years of service, as well as allowing shops the right to ask employees to work more flexible hours.
The anger in the Greek population against the latest round of cuts, which come on top of many others, runs deep.
Melina Grigoriadou, a 50-year-old married businesswoman with two children, told CNN: "The measures just never stop. Every time, politicians say they are going to be the last measures ... they are never the last.
"There is no end in this, there's no solution. The measures are awful -- it's not austerity, it's something even worse."
Although Grigoriadou works for an export company that has not cut wages, she said her family's income has fallen by almost a third because of new taxes, higher utility bills and inflation.
As she looks around in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, she sees real poverty affecting those who have seen their incomes and pensions drastically cut, or had their jobs suddenly disappear. Despite paying for social security from her wages, getting a doctor's appointment now takes months and medicines are costly, she added.
What makes the hardship worse is that the international funds Greece stands to receive will not go to help create jobs or support infrastructure, Grigoriadou said, but to service its huge debt.
Some critics of austerity have called for economic stimulus programs instead, like those implemented in the United States.
But if Greece is to stick to the course laid out by the so-called troika -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- more budget cuts will be necessary, as the country's debt woes are worse than previously believed.
Recent budget projections for the Greek government exceed the worst-case scenarios envisioned by international lenders when they agreed to a bailout, according to a Financial Times report published by CNN.
However, the hardship many Greek people are suffering has resulted in dogged opposition in parliament to deeper cuts, including within the ruling coalition.
The Democratic Party of the Left, or DIMAR, one of three parties making up the coalition headed up by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has said it will abstain from the vote on the new round of austerity measures, turning in blank ballots. But it plans to vote Sunday to approve the government's new budget.
Samaras' own center-right New Democracy party is expected to vote in favor of the package.
Although the third coalition member -- the socialist party Pasok -- supports the cuts, individual party members have come out against them and could defect, putting the vote in jeopardy.
Radical leftist party Syriza, bitterly opposed to austerity and closely connected to Greek unions, calls on its website for Greeks to demonstrate against the "rape" of democracy and the dashing of the hopes of the people.
Samaras has warned that if the measures don't pass and international funds don't arrive, the nation could plunge into chaos. He is pushing for Greece to receive more than the 31.5 billion euros expected in the latest installment "so that there is a significant effect on the real economy."
Greece, and particularly Athens, has seen repeated street demonstrations against the austerity measures imposed on the nation, some of which have turned violent.
CNN's Elinda Labropoulou reported from Athens and Laura Smith-Spark from London.