Greek police fire tear gas as strike overshadows budget vote

Posted June 28, 2011, at 9:55 p.m.

ATHENS, Greece — Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the center of Athens Tuesday as Greek labor unions shut down government services before a vote by lawmakers on austerity measures that may determine if the nation can avoid a default.

Unions began their fourth general strike of the year at midnight, protesting Prime Minister George Papandreou’s five-year plan of budget cuts and asset sales. Police estimated about 12,000 people joined marches on the first day of the 48-hour walkout. Hooded youths faced volleys of tear gas as they attacked police, smashed windows at a McDonald’s restaurant and set a van on fire in the square in front of Parliament.

“We are determined to stop this plan from passing and if it does pass, we will continue our efforts,” said Dimitra Oikonomou, 50, a schoolteacher who joined Tuesday’s rallies. “The government might not listen to us now, but in the end they will hear it all at once.”

Papandreou faces his second survival test in a week Wednesday when lawmakers vote on the package that’s needed before the cash-strapped nation can tap a fifth loan payment from last year’s $157 billion rescue. Failure to pass the government’s $111 billion plan may lead to the euro area’s first sovereign default.

“Voting for the medium-term plan means we can close this chapter of uncertainty for the Greek people,” Papandreou told lawmakers at the start of a three-day debate late Monday. “From the brink of catastrophe we are securing, colleagues, the great opportunity to change our country.”

Papandreou’s Pasok party has 155 of the 300 seats in the legislature, and his ability to keep his lawmakers united in two votes this week on budget cuts and asset sales will be critical to his victory. Two of them have said they may vote against the legislation, in part due to their opposition to plans to sell a stake in Public Power Corp.

One of the dissident lawmakers, Thomas Robopoulos, told Skai TV Tuesday that he was moved by Papandreou’s comments and that Greece faces critical times. He said he will decide on how to vote during the final debate Wednesday.

Workers at the former electricity monopoly have held rolling 48-hour strikes for the past week, leading to power cuts around the country.

State-asset sales are the “first pillar” in any new financing package for Greece and an important factor for its European Union and International Monetary Fund partners, who are supplying the aid, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said in parliament Tuesday. He spoke as a debate on the second bill, the so-called Implementation Law, began under a fast-track process, to make a June 30  deadline.

Air traffic controllers ceased work for eight hours Tuesday and planned a similar stoppage Wednesday, according to a statement on the union’s website. That caused the cancellation of all flights into and out of the Athens International Airport, the country’s biggest, between 8 a.m. and midday and 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Protesters chanted slogans against the government as they marched. One banner read “Bankers are PIGS, not the people,” a reference to the acronym for countries in the EU that have sought aid.

Police deployed 3,000 officers to protect the Parliament building that is the focus of demonstrations. In the square below, they used tear gas to fight protesters throwing marble rocks chipped with hammers from the sidewalk.

Bus, trolley, and tram workers in Athens have joined the strike, as have staff at Hellenic Railways Organization, Greece’s state-run rail company. Dockworkers, journalists, health-care and municipal workers are also participating.

Workers at the capital city’s subway called off plans to strike, keeping the service open to allow protesters to participate in rallies to be held outside Parliament.

Papandreou, whose support has slid in opinion polls, has spent the past 15 days trying and failing to muster opposition backing for the package, while keeping his own party in line. He appointed a new finance minister to stem defections, survived a confidence vote and outlined $8 billion of additional budget measures.

On Friday, he won a pledge for a second bailout from EU leaders, on the condition that he delivers domestic support for the retrenchment.

An accompanying law on the five-year plan which was submitted to Parliament on June 27 must also be approved by the deadline of June 30 before EU finance ministers meet on July 3 to approve the release of additional aid.

With assistance from Natalie Weeks, Eleni Chrepa, Nicole Itano and Marcus Bensasson in Athens.

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