A 24-hour general strike in Greece Wednesday brought most public services to a halt, while thousands marched through Athens to protest the government’s introduction of harsh austerity measures intended to keep the debt-ridden country solvent.
This month, the Socialist government is planning to pass further cutbacks aimed at saving an estimated euro23 billion ($33 billion) through 2015.
The general strike suspended all train and ferry services, grounded flights between noon and 4 p.m. and disrupted Athens public transport. All radio and television news broadcasts were suspended as journalists walked off the job for the day. The Thursday editions of newspapers were not being published, and news websites were not updating their content.
Minor scuffles broke out between riot police and demonstrators in central Athens as several thousand people — some chanting “Finance Minister, leave the planet” — took part in a demonstration called by the two main labor unions. Previous protests have been marred by violence, and three clerks died last May when their bank was torched by rioters.
Shops and some banks that were open despite the strike shuttered their window fronts in anticipation of trouble.
Earlier, about 10,000 members of the Communist-led PAME union held a peaceful march, with banners reading “We reject and condemn the new measures. We’re intensifying the fight.”
“Every day that passes, (the government) takes back what the working class has won through blood and struggles all these years,” retiree John Pavlidis said.
Another 8,000 people joined in two separate protests in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Greece‘s crisis follows years of inept governance, widespread corruption and waste that created bloated budget deficits and a public debt considerably larger than annual economic output. For the time being, the country is shielded from insolvency by a euro110 billion ($158 billion) package of rescue loans in a 2010-2013 program from its European Union partners and International Monetary Fund.
But despite drastic spending cuts — with reductions to pensions and salaries accompanied by an increase in taxes and retirement ages — the nation may need additional support to meet its financing needs next year, as the cost of borrowing from bond markets remains sky-high.
Parliament is expected to vote on the new round of cutbacks later this month. The governing Socialists have also committed themselves to an ambitious — but so far nebulous — privatization program worth a total of euro50 billion ($72 billion) over the next few years.
However, many promised reforms have not yet been implemented, and there is growing skepticism in Greece and abroad over the government’s efficiency.
“Before we can talk about further aid, Greece has to make sure that all austerity and reform measures are duly implemented,” said Michael Meister, a deputy caucus leader of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party.
“I would like to have a signal that this is finally happening,” the lawmaker told Wednesday’s German Rheinische Post daily.
EU and IMF officials are currently in Athens for talks on the austerity program — on which the continued release of the bailout loans depends.
Greek unions say the protracted austerity, amid a two-year recession and unemployment at around 15 percent, is unfairly targeting the less well-off.
A statement from the country’s largest union, the GSEE, said Wednesday’s strike expresses “strong protest at the unjust and cruel policies that have caused a surge in unemployment … violated labor rights, and squandered public wealth, while failing to insure an exit from recession.”
In Athens’ port of Piraeus, Greece’s biggest, striking ferry electrician Athanassios Sidiropoulos said the government was trying to scrap rights won over the course of decades by working classes.
“All seamen should have pension and healthcare rights, collective labor contracts, healthcare contributions,” he said.
An opinion poll commissioned by the private Mega TV station and published Tuesday said 71 percent of the public oppose the government’s handling of the economic crisis, compared with 66 percent in February.
The Socialists’ 18-month-old government held a slender lead over the main opposition conservatives. Details on the number of people questioned in the poll and its margin of error were not provided.