ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek protesters halted public transport in Athens on Thursday and moved to disrupt collection of an unpopular new property tax in a growing wave of opposition to harsh new austerity measures demanded by international lenders.
With the beleaguered Socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou fighting to push new cuts through parliament, protests have strengthened ahead of a planned general strike on October 19 which is expected to shut down much of the country.
On Thursday, protesters occupied the printing offices of Greek power utility PPC, in a bid to stop the production of electricity bills which will be used to collect the tax on homes and other property.
“We came here because we cannot allow electricity to be cut to hundreds of thousands of poor citizens, because this is what will happen with the law this government voted,” Nikos Fotopoulos, president of GENOP-DEH union, told Skai television.
Elsewhere, the ancient Acropolis, Greece’s most famous monument, was closed to tourists for a second day as workers in the archaeological service barred the entrance and Athens was hit by strikes by garbage collectors and hospital workers.
Thousands of bus drivers and metro staff marched on parliament, angry at steep pay cuts and the growing threat of redundancy in the traditionally protected public sector but the protests went beyond the mass of lower paid workers.
Lawyers refused to appear in court, doctors were due to rally outside the health ministry, while a group of patients suffering from kidney cancer rallied outside the finance ministry, which was occupied by striking officials.
The protests come as euro zone leaders scramble to put together a new rescue plan to stave off bankruptcy and stop the crisis spreading out of control with growing expectations that banks will have to take steeper losses on their bond holdings.
International lenders are demanding further painful reforms but unions say the belt-tightening hurts only the poor and middle-class and will drag Greece’s stricken economy further into recession.
“We are fully aware that this is very tough,” the European Commission chief inspector for Greece, Matthias Mors, told the daily Kathimerini in an interview.
“But I would say that we are at a critical moment, where Greece has to convince the international community and the other euro area members that it is willing and able to reach the objectives that it has committed itself to,” he said.
Analysts say Papandreou’s government, trailing in opinion polls, will be able to push through parliament a package of new austerity measures in time for a European Union summit on October 23. But discontent is growing and the government is straining to keep even its own deputies in line.
“I have no intention of voting against the bill, but no one can stop me criticizing it,” said Leonidas Grigorakos, a deputy in the ruling PASOK party. “What is taking place has no precedent, society is in turmoil, there is huge insecurity. We politicians must say where the country is heading.”
Greece, trapped in deep recession and fighting to control a public debt expected to reach 162 percent of gross domestic product this year, has struggled to get on top of a crisis which many economists now predict will end in default.
Inspectors from the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank “troika” ended a review of Greece’s progress on a first, 110-billion-euro bailout plan on Tuesday.
They gave the green light for the euro zone and the IMF to release an 8-billion euro aid tranche Greece needs to keep paying its bills past November but said Athens needed to take more determined action on reform in addition to more cuts.
But the bitter opposition aroused has squeezed the government hard and made it much more difficult to implement what amount to the deepest and most painful cuts in Greece’s postwar history.
The fact that much of the impact of the cuts will fall on public servants has complicated implementation of the plan as workers likely to be affected themselves resist cooperating.
Tax officials are due to go on strike next week while Thursday’s occupation of the PCC printing site could hit collection of a property tax that will hurt many ordinary people in a country with a high level of home ownership.
PPC’s management said the bills would be printed anyway, in another venue and at a greater cost but protesters said they would continue their protest.
(Additional reporting by Daphne Papadopoulou and Tatiana Fragou; Writing by Ingrid Melander and James Mackenzie)
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