Greek MPs endorse unpopular austerity measures despite violence

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Greece’s parliament approved deeply unpopular austerity measures despite worsening violence on Wednesday, in a vote vital towards securing international funds and preventing the euro zone’s first sovereign default. Lawmakers approved a five-year package of spending cuts, tax rises and state asset sales by a comfortable margin of 155 votes to 138 in a roll-call vote, handing a significant victory to embattled Prime Minister George Papandreou.
“We must avoid the country’s collapse at all costs. Now is not the time to step back,” the Socialist premier told lawmakers in a final appeal just before the crucial vote. The bigger than expected margin suggested the government should be able to push through laws implementing detailed budget measures and privatisations on Thursday.
Outside parliament, fierce clashes raged between stone-throwing masked youths and riot police, who fired clouds of teargas from behind steel crash barriers to keep the rioters at bay. Syntagma Square resembled a battle zone at times. One group of anarchists armed with sticks and iron bars attacked finance ministry offices just off the square, smashing windows at the entrance and on higher floors.
They were driven off by police in more than two hours of cat-and-mouse clashes. With the country on the brink of bankruptcy and social unrest mounting, it remains unclear whether the government can stick to a tight EU/IMF-imposed schedule to implement the harsh measures, even if it wins all this week’s parliamentary votes. The full pain of pay and benefit cuts and swingeing tax increases has yet to be felt, and public anger is boiling.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Europe’s reluctant paymaster and the main contributor to the Greek bailout, was first to praise the “brave” Greek vote on the fiscal package. The decision was brave as well as necessary, Merkel told a meeting on financial regulation in Berlin, adding: “I find it especially regrettable that the Greek opposition is not supporting the reform package.”
DEBRIS: Despite a threat by trade unions staging a 48-hour general strike to prevent lawmakers entering the colonnaded parliament building, deputies were able to reach the chamber to debate the austerity programme.