Athens: Buses, metro trains, trams and taxis were not running in the Greek capital on Friday, snarling traffic as public transport workers walked off the job for a second day in an unrelenting barrage of protests against government austerity measures.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos criticised the repeated strikes and protests, which have included the take-over of government buildings and risk slowing reforms the country needs to qualify for bailout loans.
"This is a challenge at the heart of democracy," the minister said in Parliament, adding that "the image there has been in the last few weeks is one of lawlessness”, and that blackmail was different from fighting for people`s rights.
Venizelos said the government was prepared to assume the political cost of pushing through unpopular but necessary austerity measures.
Taxi drivers on Friday joined the second day of a 48-hour public transport strike, leaving private cars and motorcycles as the only form of transport in the Greek capital, while lawyers walked off the job until October 19 and customs officers for 10 days. On Thursday, power company unionists occupied the electricity company`s billing facility in an effort to prevent the issuing of electricity bills which include a new property tax.
A wave of strikes is expected next week, with seamen leaving ferries tied up at ports for two days from Monday and hospital doctors and teachers also walking off the job. The labor action is to culminate in a two-day nationwide general strike on October 19-20. The second day will coincide with a vote in Parliament on new budget cuts, which includes reforms to the labor law.
The government has been imposing repeated rounds of austerity measures as it struggles to meet the requirements to qualify for funds from a EUR 110 billion (USD 151 billion) international bailout loan that is preventing it from defaulting on its debts. Its international debt inspectors have said the country will likely receive the next EUR 8 billion instalment of the loans in early November.
Athens has said it only has enough money to pay salaries and pensions until mid-November.
Public servants are the main targets of the latest reforms that include across-the-board salary cuts and the suspension of 30,000 workers on the state payroll with reduced salaries. Pensioners will also see more cuts and salary earners will pay higher taxes, while Parliament has already approved an emergency property tax to be charged starting this month through household and business electricity bills.
The new measures have led to widespread criticism not only from labour unions and opposition parties, but also from within the governing Socialist party, with some deputies implying they will not vote in favour of the bill on Thursday unless changes are made.
Venizelos said the country found itself in an "economic war”.
"We must defend ourselves," he said. "Yes, unfortunately we must cut salaries and pensions, ... yes, unfortunately we must impose greater taxes."
Markets and analysts believe that a default by Greece is inevitable eventually, and some have raised the prospects of the country leaving the European Union`s joint currency, the euro. Both Greek and European officials have repeatedly insisted this is not on the cards.
Venizelos said such a prospect would be disastrous.
"An exit from the euro leads to poverty and the jungle," he said in Parliament, and called on the opposition parties to support the government`s efforts to pull the country out of its crisis.
"We have an obligation to tell the people the truth about how dangerous, fluid, unclear the situation is," he said. "We must be united when there is danger in order to be secure and sovereign."
Venizelos criticised the repeated strikes and protests, which have included takeovers of government buildings, saying that "the image there has been in the last few weeks is one of lawlessness," and that blackmail was a different thing from fighting for people`s rights.
The Finance Minister said the government was prepared to assume the political cost of pushing through unpopular but necessary austerity measures, and repeated that authorities were cracking down on tax evasion.