Greece passes austerity measures in parliament


Athens : Greece’s parliament Thursday passed an austerity bill that will allow the country to receive a joint European Union-Intenational Monetary Fund emergency loan.

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The bill passed by a vote of 172-121 after Prime Minister George Papandreou expelled three of his deputies who abstained, kicking them out of his Socialist party.

The course of action still leaves him a comfortable majority with 157 deputies in the 300-member parliament.

The bill was passed just as thousands of Greeks gathered outside parliament during the vote in a clear show of anger at the measures, which include salary and pension cuts as well as tax hikes.

The government has said the measures are the only chance for the country to avoid bankruptcy.

“The situation today is simple – either we vote and implement the deal or we condemn the country to bankruptcy,” Prime Minister George Papandreou told parliament, one day after riots against budget cuts and tax hikes left three people dead.

He said the Socialist government is left with no other choice but to impose in exchange for a 110 billion euro ($160 billion) loan.

Papandreou has defended the measures, which foresee 30 billion euros in savings, mainly from cuts to pensions and wages, saying the government will do everything possible to prevent Greece defaulting.

The government has the responsibility of implementing the most difficult financial measures ever taken in this country,” said Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou.

Greece urgently requires the EU/IMF bail-out as it faces a May 19 deadline on a debt it says it cannot repay without new funds.

The European Union had hoped that by activating the three-year Greek rescue programme it would calm markets and give the government leeway to overhaul its heavily indebted economy.

Renewed investor concerns that the Greek crisis could spread to other eurozone countries sent Europe’s common currency to its lowest level in more than a year.

European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said it was essential to contain the fire in Greece so that it will not pose a threat to the financial stability for the European Union and its economy as a whole.

Wednesday more than 100,000 people took to the streets to protest the new taxes and government spending cuts demanded by the IMF and other European countries before debt-ridden Greece gets the 110-billion-euro bail-out package of loans to keep it from defaulting.

The riots were the worst to hit the country since the police shooting of a teenager in 2008.

Masked rioters, armed with slabs of marble, bottles and Molotov cocktails clashed with police, torched buildings and cars, destroyed shops and tried to storm parliament.

The bodies of three people, including a pregnant woman, were discovered inside a bank in central Athens after rioters broke a window and threw firebombs inside.

Crowds of people could be seen leaving flowers and candles outside the burned windows of the bank where the three died throughout the day.

The deaths were the first during a protest in Greece in decades.

At least 45 people, including 29 police officers, suffered injuries in what Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrisohoides called a “black day for democracy”.

Police officials said 25 people were arrested and another 70 detained during the riots in Athens, the port cities of Thessaloniki and Patras, the city of Ioannina and Iraklio on the southern Mediterranean island of Crete.

The protests came amid a 24-hour nationwide strike that grounded flights to and from Greece, paralysed sea and rail transport, shut down schools and government services and left hospitals operating with emergency staff.

With unions vowing more protests in the next few weeks, the large-scale social unrest and violence is seen as a blow to the ruling Socialist government.

While many Greeks believe some of the cutbacks are necessary to put their economy back on track, public anger is expected to escalate as many people begin feeling the effect of the austerity measures.

In recent polls, one in two Greeks said they are prepared to take to the streets to fight the austerity plans, which they say are due to corruption and political mismanagement of the economy.