Friday, October 21, 2011

Greece Approves Cuts Amid Mass Protests

OCTOBER 21, 2011

Greece Approves Cuts Amid Violent Protests

Wall Street Journal

ATHENS—Greek lawmakers narrowly passed a package of austerity measures Thursday, as second day of strikes and violent protests over the package convulsed the country and further weakened the ruling Socialist party.

In a final vote late Thursday, Greece's Parliament approved the measures by a vote of 154 in favor and 144 against. But the vote came at a cost to the Socialist government, which saw its slender parliamentary majority narrowed further after expelling a rebel lawmaker for not toeing the party line.

Protesters threw stones in Athens in demonstrations against austerity measures Thursday in which more than 70 were injured and one man died.

The vote came as tens of thousands of people gathered outside the Parliament building to denounce the austerity program, coinciding with a second day of a 48-hour general strike that paralyzed public services across the country.

The protests were marred by violence when hundreds of self-styled anarchist youths clashed with demonstrators from Greece's Communist-led Pame union, leading to running street battles around the city's main Syntagma Square.

Riot police then entered the square to halt the fight. There were more than 70 injuries and a 53-year-old union protester with a previous history of heart problems died from a heart attack after inhaling tear gas fired by police during the demonstration, a hospital official said.

Under pressure from its international creditors, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, Greece's government this month cobbled together the latest austerity measures to narrow the budget deficit this year and next.

People chant slogans during a demonstration in Athens on Thursday.

The legislation would further cut public-sector jobs and wages, slash pensions for high-income earners, curtail collective-bargaining rights for workers and enact new taxes, among other things.

The vote for the plan was seen as a crucial test for the ruling Socialists' grip on power in the face of internal dissent. Senior Socialist party lawmaker Louka Katseli, while supporting the overall legislation, voted against one provision in the bill and was expelled from the party. As a result, the government now holds a reduced 153-seat majority in Greece's 300-member Parliament. Two lawmakers weren't present to vote.

During debate on the measure, Socialist party heavyweight Vasso Papandreou told Parliament: "This is the last time," a view echoed by other Socialists as well.

Elected to a four-year term in a landslide victory in October 2009, the Socialist, or Pasok, party has seen its standing in polls plummet after two years of austerity measures. Public support for the party is now plumbing historic lows and is around levels last seen in the mid-1970s when Pasok first emerged as a major party.

"The troika may ask for more austerity and no single-party government can do this," said a senior Socialist party official. "[Prime Minister George] Papandreou will be forced to call early elections."

The vote comes before Sunday's summit of European leaders that is expected to hammer out a comprehensive solution to the bloc's debt crisis.

European finance ministers are due to meet Friday, two days before the summit, to decide whether to release the next tranche of aid for Greece that is part of a €110 billion ($151.6 billion) bailout the country received last year.

Greece's European partners have made passage of the legislation a precondition for disbursing that next €8 billion aid tranche. Without it, Greece faces default, with the government warning that it will run out of money by mid-November.

Despite that, the government faced serious challenges convincing its own deputies to support the measure. Several leading party lawmakers publicly stated that they would support the latest austerity package, but balked at supporting any further austerity measures in the future.

—Alkman Granitsas contributed to this article.
Write to Alkman Granitsas at

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