Athens: Tens of thousands of striking Greeks protested against austerity plans on Wednesday, testing the government’s determination to carry out draconian budget cuts in exchange for billions of euros in EU/IMF aid.
Beating drums and chanting, “Don’t mess with us!,” workers marched through central Athens, led by members of the communist trade union PAME, in what appeared to be the biggest protest since the debt crisis first gripped Greece late last year.
Police fired teargas at a group of about 50 protesters who tried to storm parliament. They estimated the crowd size at over 25,000 but it looked to be swelling well above that number.
The walkout, the third joint strike by public and private sector workers this year, grounded flights, shut shops and brought public transport to a standstill, underscoring rising opposition to belt-tightening measures.
“These measures are horrible,” said Maria Tzivara, a 54-year-old saleswoman. “I’m afraid I’ll get fired or my salary will be cut. It will be very tough.”
Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou submitted an austerity bill to parliament on Tuesday that envisages €30 billion ($40 billion) in new savings through deep cuts in wages and pensions and a rise in value-added tax (VAT).
The conservative opposition has vowed to vote against the bill, dooming hopes of a national political consensus on the measures. The government enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament and expects to pass the legislation this week.
Despite polls indicating that most Greeks disagree with the austerity measures, protests had been fairly limited in past months and far more peaceful than the riots that shook the country in December 2008 after a teenager was killed by police.
The strikes were unfolding against a backdrop of turbulence in financial markets. The euro currency and stocks have sunk this week on concerns that the €110 billion ($146.5-billion) European Union/International Monetary Fund rescue package will be insufficient to stop the euro zone’s debt crisis from spreading.
Concerns over the implementation of the “pain-for-aid” plan and contagion to other southern European countries are also raising questions about whether the 16-nation single currency zone can survive in its current form.
Opinion polls show increasing anger among ordinary Greeks, who feel they are being made to pay for their country’s crisis while rampant tax evasion and corruption go unpunished.
The centre-left daily Eleftherotypia warned on Wednesday that young Greeks could rise up if the government did not do something to give them hope.
“If nothing is done, the explosion of the angry and the disappointed will sweep away everything,” the paper said “Have we forgotten December 2008 and become complacent?”
The president of the private sector union GSEE condemned the government measures as “harsh and unfair” and warned workers elsewhere in Europe that they could be next.
“Our struggle is also a message to the people of Europe that what started in Greece will soon spread because Europe has shown it is incapable of confronting this crisis,” Yannios Panagopoulos told Reuters.