The Greek parliament has approved a deeply unpopular austerity bill to secure a second EU/IMF bailout and avoid national bankruptcy, as buildings burned across central Athens and violence spread around the country.
“It would be a huge historical injustice if the country from which European culture sprang … reached bankruptcy“
– Lucas Papademos,
Greek MPs voted 199-74 in favour of the cutbacks, despite strong dissent among the two main coalition members. A total of 37 MPs from the majority Socialists and conservative New Democracy party voted against the party line, abstained or voted present.
The coalition government of Lucas Papademos, the country’s technocrat prime minister, expelled 43 MPs from its ranks in parliament, over dissent in the debt vote.
The Socialists and conservatives expelled 22 and 21 MPs, respectively, from their parliamentary groups early on Monday, reducing their majority in the 300-seat parliament from 236 to 193.
A third coalition partner, the rightist LAOS party, effectively withdrew from the government on Friday after its leader publicly opposed the deal.
Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from the capital, Athens, said the sizable majority had established clear support for the prime minister, as the details of the cuts are pushed through parliament in coming weeks.
“It is a very important majority for the government it helps legitimise the measures,” he said.
Outside the walls of parliament, there was chaos as protesters expressed their rage over the bill. Cinemas, cafes, shops and banks were set ablaze in central Athens, as black-masked protesters fought riot police outside parliament.
|IN PICTURES: Greeks protest austerity cuts|
State television reported the violence spread to the tourist islands of Corfu and Crete, the northern city of Thessaloniki and towns in central Greece. Shops were looted in the capital where police said 34 buildings were ablaze.
Papademos denounced the worst breakdown of order since 2008 when violence gripped Greece for weeks after police shot a 15-year-old schoolboy.
“Vandalism, violence and destruction have no place in a democratic country and won’t be tolerated,” he told parliament as it prepared to vote on the new 130bn euro ($170bn) bailout to save Greece from a chaotic bankruptcy.
Papademos told legislators shortly before they voted that they would be gravely mistaken if they rejected the package that demands heavy pay, pension and job cuts, as this would threaten Greece’s place in the European mainstream.
“It would be a huge historical injustice if the country from which European culture sprang … reached bankruptcy and was led, due to one more mistake, to national isolation and national despair,” he said.
The chaos outside parliament showed how tough it will be to implement the measures.
“We are facing destruction. Our country, our home, has become ripe for burning; the centre of Athens is in flames. We cannot allow populism to burn our country down,” conservative politician Costis Hatzidakis told parliament.
Al Jazeera’s Psaropoulos said the protest on Sunday began peacefully, but had rapidly descended into violence from both police and protesters.
“There is absolute mayhem in the square outside parliament. Thousands of [people] who started peacefully have not been budged by all the tear gas and stun grenades,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips, who arrived in Athens as the violence was escalating, described the atmosphere as “surreal”.
“The air is thick with tear gas and there are debris and rocks everywhere. I’m now standing by a cinema, and it is no more. It’s going up in flames and firefighters are struggling to control it,” Barnaby said.
Terrified Greeks and tourists fled the rock-strewn streets and the clouds of stinging gas, cramming into hotel lobbies for shelter as lines of riot police struggled to contain the mayhem.
State NET television reported that trouble had also broken out in Heraklion, capital of Crete, as well as the towns of Volos and Agrinio in central Greece.
On the streets many businesses were ablaze, including the neo-classical home to the Attikon cinema dating from 1870 and a building housing the Asty, an underground cinema used by the Gestapo during World War II as a torture chamber.
As fighting raged for hours, protesters threw bombs made from gas canisters as riot police advanced across the square on the crowds, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Loud boos from the protests could be heard inside parliament.