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Greece lawmakers OK new austerity measures

Defying raging protests that left one man dead, Greece’s Parliament on Thursday approved additional austerity measures to secure desperately needed financial aid and stave off the country’s imminent default.

The beleaguered government eked out 154 votes in favor, just three more than it needed to approve the legislation, which included tax hikes, wage and pension cuts, and the termination of 30,000 jobs in the costly public sector.

Two lawmakers were absent and 144, mainly conservative deputies, voted against the bill, the second and final vote on the unpopular austerity measures in two days.

Although widely anticipated, the outcome offered some respite for beleaguered Prime Minister George Papandreou, who quickly took to the floor of the 300-seat assembly to thank lawmakers from his Socialist party, known as PASOK, after the vote. He then expelled Louka Katseli, a leading party member, for making good on her threat to vote down a single article of the bill calling for the liberalization of labor regulations.

“Passage of these measures,” Papandreou said in a written statement as the vote closed, “was a matter of national responsibility … intended to secure the financing needs of the country, avert bankruptcy and … safeguard the future of every Greek family.”

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Outside Parliament, though, thousands of seething, crisis-fatigued Greeks clearly disagreed.

For a second day, more than 50,000 workers flooded the streets of Athens to protest the measures. Hundreds of communist activists sought to shield the demonstrators, but when swarms of black-clad extremists tried to use the crowd as cover for attacks on police, tussles ensued, quickly degenerating into combustible scenes of violence and civil strife.

Riot police watched for an hour before chasing stone-throwing militants across the city center. They fired tear gas, spreading a choking pall over the Parliament building and protesting crowds.

At least 40 demonstrators were injured, three of them seriously, including a 53-year-old union worker who was stoned by militant youths during the clashes, witnesses said. He died of a heart attack shortly after being rushed to a nearby hospital for serious head injuries.

Two other middle-aged protesters suffered serious head and leg injuries after tripping over a marble railing, falling onto the canopy of a cafe and then crashing onto the concrete pavement.

The worker’s death was not the first for the protests that have shaken Greece in the last two years. Three people, including a pregnant bank employee, were killed in violent demonstrations in May 2010, when Athens signed up to a nearly $150-billion bailout loan patched together by its European partners and the International Monetary Fund.

Passage of the new austerity legislation removes the single biggest stumbling block to Greece’s desperate bid to secure the sixth tranche of that loan. European finance ministers look likely to approve disbursement of the funds as early as Friday; without the money, Greece could go bust within weeks.

Still, Europe’s debt woes seem far from over.

European leaders are under pressure to put together a definitive plan to fight the debt crisis at a summit in Brussels on Sunday. Still, strong divisions between Europe’s two strongest economies, Germany and France, have left markets concerned over progress in plans to recapitalize European banks and fortify a war chest for bailing out troubled economies.

In a statement issued Thursday, Germany and France said a second urgent summit would be needed next week to finalize the plan, expected to include a Greek debt overhaul.

Despite Thursday’s fiery protests, few demonstrators gathered outside Parliament later to decry the vote. Signs of undiminished public anger, however, lay scattered across the capital: wanted posters depicting Papandreou and Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos.

Carassava is a special correspondent.


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