Clashes in Greece, parliament expected to approve bill

Greek police clashed with protesters outside parliament in the early hours of Thursday ahead of a decisive vote expected to approve a final austerity bill needed to avert default.

The government of Prime Minister George Papandreou, which won a first vote on Wednesday by 155 to 138 votes, expects to pass the second and final bill of tax hikes, spending targets and privatizations agreed as part of an EU/IMF bailout.

Riot police fired teargas. Hundreds of officers wielding batons chased black-clad youths who hurled stones, wrecked shops and set fire to buildings.

A demonstrator carries a banner during a protest against Syria's President

Lawmakers passed a first bill on Wednesday to enact the austerity plan and must vote on Thursday on a law to implement it. The measures have been demanded by international lenders in exchange for keeping Greece afloat.

"I expect that the MPs who backed the mid-term plan will also vote for the implementation law," government spokesman Ilias Mosialos said in a television interview.

Both bills laying out the 28 billion euro ($40 billion) austerity plan must be passed for the European Union and International Monetary Fund to release a 12-billion-euro loan tranche of a 110-billion-euro bailout which the government needs to stay afloat.

They are also needed for talks on a planned second bailout of about the same size that will include some 30 billion euros in private-sector participation. Locked out of bond markets, Greece needs the extra cash to avert default and keep the debt crisis from spilling over to the rest of the euro zone.

Papandreou, who reshuffled his cabinet earlier this month to secure support for the bills, said he was determined to push through reforms.

"Today, I am more determined than ever," Papandreou said. "Now is the time to tackle everything that that is wrong, with everything that hurts us, that holds us back."

Thursday's vote enables individual budget measures and creates a privatization agency. The conservative New Democracy opposition, which voted against the first bill, said it would support some of the measures in the second.

"We will reject it in principle. However, we will support the privatizations mechanism as well as the articles on spending," said New Democracy deputy Yannis Vroutsis.

Parliament resumes debate on the second bill at 9:30 a.m. (0630 GMT) and the vote is not expected before 2 p.m. (1100 GMT). Before the debate, it had not yet been decided whether more than one vote would be needed to pass it.

Implementing the measures will be hard for the government, which has fallen behind the opposition in opinion polls and faced heated criticism from its own deputies during the parliament debate.

Unions, which paralyzed the country for 48 hours earlier this week, have vowed to oppose privatizations and other austerity steps. Anger among the Greek population was underlined by violence which erupted on Syntagma Square outside parliament as Wednesday's votes on the first bill were being counted.

Doctors working with the demonstrators said they had treated at least 25 people for minor injuries and hundreds with respiratory problems at the adjacent Syntagma metro station. At least 40 police officers were hurt, the police union said.

Hooded youths and police fought battles into the night, choking the city center with tear gas and smoke from petrol bombs. The protesters set fire to the post office in the building where the Finance Ministry is located, and tried to set ablaze a bank. Across the square, the luxury King George Hotel was evacuated.

Analysts said the real challenge for Greece will come after the bill is voted on and the international money secured.

"The implementation law will also pass, without problems," said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters. "The real question is whether Papandreou will use this vote to move forward with these crucial reforms."

AFP

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