The Greek government overcame divisions on Wednesday to defeat an early challenge to an austerity package needed to secure vital international aid, but it still faced internal dissent and angry protests ahead of a final vote.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to narrowly win support for the budget cuts, tax hikes and labor reforms in a parliamentary vote late in the evening. The smallest party in his conservative-liberal coalition opposes the measures.
A ‘no’ vote could break the fragile coalition. The opposition SYRIZA party tried to block the 500-odd page bill by forcing a vote on its constitutionality, but the measure was defeated by the government’s majority.
Tens of thousands of union workers were planning to gather near parliament at around 1500 GMT, on the second day of a nationwide strike that has halted public transport, shut schools, banks and government offices, and caused garbage to pile up on streets.
Backed by the leftist opposition, unions say the measures will hit the poor and spare the wealthy, while deepening a five-year recession that has wiped out a fifth of the country’s output and driven unemployment to 25 percent.
“The bailout policies are completely catastrophic, outrageously absurd, and an utter failure,” Alexis Tsipras, head of the anti-bailout SYRIZA, said in an interview with the Efimerida Syntakton newspaper.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. The bailouts can no longer be acceptable, not even under the toughest blackmail.”
Lawmakers began a heated debate over spending cuts and tax hikes expected to be worth 13.5 billion euros which, if approved, will be key to unlocking a loan tranche of more than 31 billion euros ($40 billion) from the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout.
The vote is the biggest test for Samaras’s government since it came to power in June. A ‘yes’ will give Athens cash to shore up its ailing banks and pay off debt coming due late this month.
Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers, said Greece had to continue slashing spending in its public sector.
“Our Greek friends have no options or choice,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Singapore.
“They have to do it. And my impression is that the reforms which are (being) undertaken in Greece are increasingly better understood by the Greek citizens.”
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