Greece hit by 48-hour nationwide strike on eve of key austerity vote
ATHENS -- Shopkeepers rolled down shutters, transport screeched to a halt and state agencies were closed Tuesday as millions of Greeks walked off their jobs to protest the toughest measures yet unveiled by the government in its bid to slash the nation's deficit and jump-start the stalled economy.
The 48-hour nationwide strike, affecting the public and private sector, comes on the eve of a crucial parliamentary vote on $17 billion in added austerity measures that Athens needs to approve to unlock $39 billion in bailout funds from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Without that cash infusion, Greece would have enough money to pay pensions, salaries and other expenses only until Nov. 16, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has warned. After that, this Mediterranean nation, the epicenter of the euro debt crisis, would be bankrupt.
But three years of piled-on austerity and five years of recession have unleashed a wave of public unrest.
Union workers have pledged to flood Athens with protesters in two days of demonstrations and strike action, keeping schools closed, hospitals operating with only emergency staff, and road, rail and air services suspended.
Thousands of police have been deployed in Athens, and huge steel barriers have been erected around Parliament to shield the sprawling ochre-colored building from potential attacks ahead of Wednesday's scheduled vote.
The new measures include further pay cuts, tax hikes and an increase in the average retirement age by two years, from 65 to 67. The plan would also sack thousands of public employees and slash severance payments in a society where unemployment has already hit 25%.
Samaras' government says the measures are necessary in order to bring down Greece's deficit and squeeze out a primary budget surplus -- that is, before interest payments -- by 2014. But the prime minister is having trouble keeping his wobbly coalition together.
On Monday, the Democratic Left, the smallest party in the coalition, said it would stay in the power-sharing government but would refuse to vote for labor reforms that would cut wages by 10% and eliminate a series of severance payments. The about-face could leave Samaras with barely enough votes to eke out a majority in Greece's 300-seat Parliament.
"He'll get his victory," said George Kirtsos, a leading political commentator in Athens. "But implementation will be a problem. The government will have been seriously impaired."
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: Protesters march to the Greek Parliament on Tuesday during a 48-hour nationwide strike to protest proposed austerity measures. Credit: Dimitri Messinis / Associated Press