|Greek lawmakers are about to vote on an austerity bill that some Greeks condemn as undemocratic [REUTERS]|
Thousands of protesters massed in Greece under heavy police watch after the government approved unpopular austerity cuts to get vital rescue funds and avoid the “chaos” of a default.
More than 3,500 people streamed to Syntagma Square in Athens on Saturday for the second day of protests and a general strike, with hundreds of riot police standing guard following clashes that erupted during the rallies on Friday.
The defection-hit coalition government approved in the early hours on Saturday the painful belt-tightening measures that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have demanded in return for a $171bn rescue package that Athens needs to avoid default in March.
“We are here to say no to what they want to impose on us,” said Sophia, a 38-year-old researcher, as other protesters held up a banner reading: “They Are Ruining Our Lives”.
The general strike brought public transport to a halt in the Greek capital, with no metro, bus or trolley services.
In the northern city of Thessaloniki, police estimated a crowd of some 4,000 at a similar protest.
As the cabinet debated the measures on Friday, Lucas Papademos, the Greek prime minister, issued a stern warning after six members of his coalition government resigned in protest at the new cuts.
“A disorderly default would plunge our country into a disastrous adventure,” he told the cabinet. “It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion.”
“Sooner or later, [Greece] would be led out of the euro,” he warned.
The remaining cabinet members finally approved the deal and the Athens News Agency (ANA) said parliament would vote on it on Sunday, with demonstrations expected during the vote.
Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from Athens, said the prime minister is urging parliamentarians to do “everything necessary to get this bill passed”.
“The prime minister has said this vote is of crucial importance to the future of Greece, not just for today, but for at least a decade to come,” Psaropoulos said.
Speaking to their respective parliamentary groups, the leaders of PASOK and New Democracy on Saturday urged their MPs to vote in favour of the new debt deal.
“The new program is difficult and harsh, but it is our only hope for avoiding extreme situations,” said George Papandreou, former prime minister and PASOK leader.
“Now is the time of responsibility toward the country,” he added.
“We can begin stabilising with the debt deal because we will remove [$112bn of debt] from our shoulders,” Antonis Samaras, New Democracy leader, told his party’s MPs.
“Now we must tell the truth and only the truth. We must look each other in the eye and be honest with the people to move forward … to ensure the nation’s destiny,” Evangelos Venizelos, Greek finance minister, told PASOK’s parliamentary group.
Greece was explicitly told by its eurozone partners this week that it must agree to austerity measures in order to secure the release of further loans under the $171bn bailout pending since October.
Greece needs the money to stave off bankruptcy on March 20, when Athens must repay nearly $19.1bn in maturing debt.
Three texts will be put to Sunday’s vote: measures to recapitalise Greek banks, an authorisation for Papademos and the finance minister to sign the eurozone bailout, and a bond swap with private creditors designed to wipe out around $131.9bn from Greece’s $461bn debt, ANA said.
Details of the austerity measures will be included in a follow-up law to be introduced in the next two weeks, the agency said.
The measures, which include slashing minimum wages and facilitating layoffs, have sparked deep anger in a country where more than a million people, or more than 20 per cent of the workforce, are unemployed.
The far-right LAOS party that was part of the coalition said it would not support the further austerity cuts, and its four members in government quit.
They were followed by the assistant foreign minister for European affairs, a socialist who accused the EU of “fixation” on a labour rights overhaul.
Another socialist, a deputy labour minister, resigned Thursday.
The government intends to appoint replacements after the measures are approved by parliament on Sunday, state television NET said.
At least five socialist and conservative deputies have declared their intention to oppose the cuts on Sunday, and LAOS leader George Karatzaferis said his 16 lawmakers would do likewise.
“We are not going to vote,” Karatzaferis told a news conference, adding: “Humiliation was imposed on us. I do not tolerate this.”
In principle, the two senior coalition partners, socialist Pasok and conservative New Democracy, still have enough support to pass the measures.