Greek lawmakers approve 2011 austerity budget to help weak economy
ATHENS: Greek lawmakers early Thursday approved an austerity budget, part of a tough economic overhaul imposed after the debt-hit country's international bailout, as thousands of protesters marched in Athens.
Some 3,000 unionists and Communists staged separate demonstrations Wednesday to reject the economic blueprint containing over 14 billion euros in savings for 2011 in a bid to restore balance to Greece's woeful public finances. After five days of debates the budget was adopted by 156 votes to 142, with the ruling socialist Pasok in favour and the rightist New Democracy, communists, radical left and extreme right voting against.
The 2011 budget includes cuts in the badly mismanaged Greek health sector and stateowned companies, a two percent increase in the lower sales tax rate from 11 to 13 percent, a tax evasion crackdown, lower defence spending and a pensions freeze.
Prime Minister George Papandreou told parliament he was "determined" to make all the changes needed to pull the country out of crisis, saying: "Despite the difficulties I am optimistic, Greece will not go bankrupt." He added in a televised speech: "Without the aid of the European mechanism, the country would have collapsed." Papandreou appealed to all the opposition parties to "assume their responsibilities" and contribute to efforts to save the economy.
As the protesters marched on Wednesday the streets of the capital were already clogged with traffic due to a public transport strike-the fourth this month-against wage cuts and parts of the city were overflowing with rubbish after a sanitation walkout.
"The government is trying to pit social groups against each other," senior bus unionist Nikos Kouloumbaritsis told Flash Radio. "We have suffered five wage cuts since January, nobody can consider living on a wage of 1,000 euros (1,315 dollars)," he said. "We are not stopping our mobilisation." The minimum wage in Greece is 740 euros.
Investors also doubt that Greece can fulfil its promises, despite having slashed its public deficit by some six percent of output this year.
One of the major rating agencies, Fitch, said on Tuesday it could downgrade its rating on Greece after a similar warning from another agency, Moody's, last week.
With thousands of jobs already lost, wages cut and prices climbing from tax hikes, the country's influential unions have hit back with seven general strikes this year and waves of street protests. Fearful of further social unrest in the midst of the festive season, the government has opted to postpone to early next year a controversial reform to liberalise scores of regulated professions. -Afp