Much of Greece was shut down Tuesday and Wednesday by a two-day general strike by all major union federations, and enraged protesters filling Athens' Syntagma Square, some clashing with police. But on Wednesday the Greek Parliament did what the European ruling class demanded of them and approved the general terms of a crushing austerity program.
The vote went 155-138 in favor of the austerity program, with five legislators voting "present" and two absent from the chamber. All but one member of Prime Minister George Papandreou's Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) majority voted yes, and the one defector was quickly expelled from the party. All but one deputy of the right-wing opposition New Democracy Party voted against the measure, and that deputy was also quickly kicked out by the party leadership. The left-wing opposition, consisting of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and others, voted solidly against the austerity program.
Prior to the vote, New Democracy argued that the austerity program was too harsh. Prime Minister Papandreou angrily accused New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras of hypocrisy, pointing out that the previous New Democrat government of Kostas Simitis bears much of the blame for creating the current situation, because, in order to get Greece into the Euro zone, it concealed Greece's real fiscal situation of huge debts that were in violation of Euro zone rules.
Greek workers and others who will be hurt by the austerity program, and are already being hurt by the crisis which has raised unemployment to 16 percent, do not care about the finger-pointing between PASOK and the New Democrats, or the finger-wagging of the European elites. Their demand is that the austerity measures be cancelled and that the rich be forced to pay for the damage caused by the irresponsibility of the politicians they control.
Last year, Greece got the "troika" of leading financial institutions, consisting of the European Union, the Central Bank of Europe and the International Monetary Fund, to come up with a large bailout loan which was conditioned on getting the budget deficit under control. A $17 billion installment on last year's loan is supposed to be delivered to Greece in early July, when, also, a massive payment on Greece's sovereign debt is due. And further economic help for Greece going forward has also been made contingent on the enforcement of austerity measures which include raised taxes (even on minimum wage earners), cuts in public payrolls, salaries and pensions, and a $72 billion program of privatization of many key government institutions including the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki plus electric companies and other things.
In the general strike which started Tuesday, electrical workers cut power, causing rolling blackouts, to protest the plan to privatize their industry.
Greece has a population of about 11.2 million, and a gross domestic product of $356 billion according to the Economist magazine's "Pocket World in Figures" for 2011. Although it is a small country, if it defaults completely this could destabilize the whole European banking system.
Although Wednesday's protests were mostly peaceful, the "black bloc" once again made its appearance, as it has in protest demonstrations in Europe throughout the last several years. These are masked, black-clad, supposedly anarchist youth who show up at demonstrations and goad the police into reacting with violence against the main groups of protesters. This time, some of these people broke up marble paving stones in Syntagma Square and turned them into missiles to hurl at the police, who responded with massive tear gas attacks and vicious beatings of peaceful protesters. Amnesty International also accused the police of overreacting and using excessive violence against protesters.
While this was going on in Greece, the International Monetary Fund announced that it has chosen French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to be its new managing director, replacing Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is awaiting trial in New York on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel employee. Lagarde beat out Mexican Central Bank Director Augustin Carstens, the only other candidate being seriously considered for the position. Lagarde's victory was clinched when the United States, China, Russia and Brazil announced their support for her. In fact, Lagarde and Carstens have very similar political and economic philosophies, both being strong supporters of neo-liberal policies of free trade and privatization. Lagarde quickly announced that she would take a firm line with Greece.
The only good news for Greece was that some of its French private creditors are now saying that they may be willing to accept that payments owed to them could be stretched out over a longer period.
Photo: Greek workers in an earlier strike. Solidnet // CC 2.0