Waves of austerity weaken Greek Socialists

AP News
Posted: Oct 23, 2011 7:45 AM
Waves of austerity weaken Greek Socialists

Politicians hate yielding power. But in recession-hit Greece, more governing Socialists are choosing to do so rather than back Prime Minister George Papandreou's deeply hated austerity measures.

In growing numbers, Socialist lawmakers are calling for an end to their single-party government, unable to face their angry constituents after two years of punishing tax hikes and slashed pensions, jobs and salaries.

Pressed hard by Papandreou, parliament this week approved some of the harshest cuts since the financial crisis began in order to appease international creditors and keep Greece solvent.

But for many, it was a step too far: Two days of rioting outside parliament left one man dead and nearly 200 wounded. Unions staged a 48-hour general strike that shut down schools, shops, offices and transportation around the country and occupied ministry buildings.

"Papandreou now has large sections of society against him," said Spyros Tritsas, chief editor of the weekly current affairs magazine Epikaira, which has been critical of Papandreou's handling of the crisis.

The Socialists themselves showed increasing signs of discontent, as popular support for their party continues to fall dramatically.

Greeks are heading into a fourth year of recession with 16.5 percent unemployment and a rapidly expanding class of poor. Now they face yet more emergency tax hikes, pension cuts, and steep levies on their homes.

One prominent government deputy choked back tears before voting for the tough new measures Thursday, and promised it was the last time she would bow to leadership pressure. Others said they had simply had enough.

"At this point, we have reached our limit ... No (party) can carry this burden alone. There must be an emergency government that will be in power for as long as is required," Socialist deputy Nikos Salagiannis said.

Four other Socialists during the debate also openly demanded that Papandreou hold talks with opposition parties on an emergency power-sharing deal.

In the end, lawmakers approved the latest round of cuts late Thursday, but the vote gnawed at Papandreou's grip on power, midway through his four-year term in office.

A dissenting Socialist vote cut his majority in parliament to just three seats _ raising new doubts that he will be able to see through two more years of unpopular reforms.

The Greek political crisis comes as European leaders grapple over possible solutions to stop the eurozone debt crisis spreading from the three smaller nations that have already received bailouts _ Greece, Ireland and Portugal _ to major economies that are struggling, such as Italy and Spain.

Since May 2010, Greece has been surviving on rescue loans worth euro110 billion ($152 billion) from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. But it has tried to meet deficit-cutting demands mainly by raising taxes, arguing that structural reforms to ease long-term spending on health care and its bloated public sector will take longer to show results.

Attempts at cross-party support for Greece's recovery effort have fallen flat.

Opposition parties on the left and right oppose the measures as unfair and doomed to fail, while the government says it must meet its commitments as each rescue loan installment _ paid out roughly every quarter _ is essential to prevent a chaotic default.

So far, the austerity has hammered Greece's once-booming private sector.

Since the debt crisis started in late 2009, more than 275,000 people have lost their jobs and store closures have exceeded 20 percent in some parts of Athens and other cities.

"The government is heading toward a state of collapse ... because it is unable to stop the rapid decline in people's living standards," Tritsas told The Associated Press. "The middle class is being pulled apart, as the measures are now hurting average people and small businesses who had little financial reliance on the state."

A poll commissioned by the magazine and published in mid-October found that 81 percent of respondents thought Greece's financial situation had got "much worse" in the past 12 months, and that 55 percent said they would be unable to pay the new emergency taxes. Nearly nine out of 10 Greeks now disagree with Papandreou's policies in general.

No margin of error was available for the VPRC poll of 1,000 adults conducted earlier in the month.

The Socialists won the 2009 election by a landslide, with nearly 44 percent of the vote and a 10-seat majority in the 300-member parliament. Rival conservatives were widely discredited for corruption scandals, tipping Greece into recession, and hiding the true extent of the country's economic troubles.

Two years later, seven of Papandreou's deputies have become anti-government independents and three others have quit politics due to their opposition to the austerity measures.

"If those three deputies had not given up their seats in parliament, the government would already have fallen," Tritsas said. "Do I think the Socialists themselves could bring down the government? I think it's likely. It's hard to see (early) elections being avoided."

Tritsas said he did not expect deeply entrenched dominance by the country's two main parties to disappear, but predicted those parties would be forced to reinvent themselves.

Support for the Socialists has sunk to around 20 percent, according to recent opinion polls which give the conservatives a double-digit lead.

And labor unions, once a pillar of Socialist support, are now openly calling for the government to go.

"This government has ignored the popular uprising by approving this terrible law," Ilias Iliopoulos, secretary-general of the civil servant union, Adedy, told the AP on Friday after two days of riots shook Athens. "Our answer is: get out as fast as you can, there is no place for you in Greece any longer."

Meanwhile, the remaining 153 members of Papandreou's parliamentary group dread weekend visits to their constituencies, where opposition-organized groups of "angry citizens" often greet them with eggs, yogurt, and chants of abuse.

Cell-phone videos of the attacks have been frequently posted on the Internet and shown on television.

The Socialists, government lawmaker Andreas Triantafilopoulos told parliament, have been handed an unendurable task.

"We have been insulted, mocked, heckled, and assaulted," he said. "That's because we've had to shoulder the weight of these reforms alone."


Associated Press writer Nicholas Paphitis contributed.