Could this be what America will soon look like? Over 100,000 people took to the streets in Athens on October 19th to protest increasing austerity measures.
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Thousands in Greece Protest Austerity Bill
By RACHEL DONADIO and NIKI KITSANTONIS
Published: October 19, 2011
ATHENS — By now, it almost feels like a ritual: a strike and large demonstration disrupted by skirmishes and tear gas ahead of a parliamentary vote on new austerity measures that Greece needs to take to qualify for the next installment of aid the country needs to fend off default.
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Simela Pantzartzi/European Pressphoto Agency
But what was different on Wednesday, the first day of a two-day general strike before Parliament voted in the evening to approve new austerity measures, was the scale of the protest — tens of thousands of people — and the range of the demonstrators.
Although the demonstration was organized by leading labor unions, everyone from trash collectors, teachers, retired army officers, lawyers and even judges walked off the job to protest the government-imposed wage cuts and tax increases that they say are squeezing the debt-ridden country into penury.
“There’s no precedent for this,” said Anastasia Dotsi, 70, a retired bank worker who said anger had driven her out to protest. After two years of austerity measures, “we have been crushed as a people,” she said.
She said her son and daughter, who both work in the private sector, had not been paid in months and were struggling to pay their mortgages and support their families.
“I have never been a leftist; I voted for Pasok” — the Socialist Party of Prime Minister George A. Papandreou — “I consider myself a middle-class person,” she said. “But they’ve pushed us to become extremists.”
On Wednesday evening, as garbage fires smoldered in the streets, the Greek Parliament approved the new package of austerity measures — and secured crucial rescue financing — with all 154 governing party legislators in Greece’s 300-seat Parliament voting in favor.
The controversial bill includes cuts in wages and pensions as well as thousands of layoffs in the public sector — once a political third rail in Greece’s welfare state. It also changes collective bargaining rules to make it easier to hire and fire workers, a highly unpopular action that economists say is crucial to liberalizing Greece’s economy but that has little popular support.
The bill will not pass into law until a second vote — on the separate articles of the legislation — on Thursday. The measures are expected to pass, even over the reluctance of the governing Socialist Party, which helped build up the welfare state it is now charged with dismantling.
European Union leaders are preparing to meet Sunday to decide on the release of the next, $11 billion installment of aid to Greece, part of a $150 billion bailout engineered last year. They will also be looking at a much broader European rescue designed to protect the bloc should Greece default. Only that will avert a default next month that could shake the euro zone and reverberate through the global economy.
“The vote will boost our negotiating position; it will give us strength for the E.U. summit,” Mr. Papandreou said this week. The main goal for Greece, he added, is “to stay in the euro zone.”
But as Europe continues to debate the country’s fate, Greece’s government has lost its popular consensus. Economists and Greece’s foreign lenders say the austerity measures are required to modernize its economy, but they are deeply unpopular with Greeks.
“Now the only thing the government has managed to do is get people against them,” said Dimitrios Katsandris, 67, a pharmacist, who attended the demonstration in an elegant tweed jacket. “You see people with different interests, but now they are united against the government.”
On Wednesday, their anger was clear. Once demonstrators reached Syntagma Square, outside Parliament, around noon, some violent protesters transformed the otherwise peaceful demonstration into one of sustained street violence, throwing rocks at the police, setting trash cans on fire and smashing shop windows in nearby streets until well after dark.
The police estimated the crowd size at 80,000 people; some news Web sites put the number at more than 100,000. The authorities said 38 police officers and three demonstrators were hurt in Wednesday’s clashes. The Greek news media said at least six demonstrators were injured. The police said five people were arrested and 28 others detained briefly for questioning.
Shops, bakeries and gas stations closed, while public transportation was scaled back. Tax offices, courts and schools shut down, hospitals were operating with only emergency staff and customs officials walked off the job. Civil servants, who have been the most vociferous in their protests, continued sit-ins at ministries and state agencies.
The question on many minds was how long this state of affairs could last. As she stood at the base of Syntagma Square, Maria Sarrafidou, 53, a psychiatrist, said that she was seeing more patients in her private practice, but that they paid her less.
“Mostly panic disorders,” she said. “In the last two years I’ve seen children and adults. They have no hope for the future. They wait and wait; this is the most difficult part. They don’t know what’s going to happen.”