ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek protesters tried to disrupt collection of an unpopular new property tax on Thursday and transport workers went on strike in a growing wave of protests against harsh new austerity measures.
With the socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou trying to push new cuts through parliament to meet demands from international lenders, opposition has strengthened ahead of a planned general strike on October 19 which is expected to shut down much of the country.
On Thursday, protesters occupied the printing offices of Greek power utility PPC, which is set to collect the property tax, with a few dozen protesters hanging banners reading: “We are not going to stop providing electricity to the poor people even if they put us in jail.”
Protests have spread to other sectors as well. The ancient Acropolis, Greece’s most famous monument, was closed to tourists and Athens was hit by strikes by garbage collectors and hospital workers. Lawyers refused to appear in court.
The wave of protests come as euro zone leaders scramble to put together a new rescue plan to stave off bankruptcy and stop the crisis spreading out of control.
International lenders are demanding further painful reforms but unions say the belt-tightening hurts only the poor and middle-class and will drag Greece’s stricken economy further into recession.
The action at power company PPC underlines the challenge faced by the government, which has included the property tax in electricity bills to ensure it will be paid in a country where tax evasion is endemic.
PPC’s management said the bills would be printed anyway, in another venue and at a greater cost but protesters said they would continue their protest.
“We came to stay ... we are here to give a fight” said Nikos Fotopoulos, president of PPC’s union GENOP-DEH, on Skai TV.
Unions have planned a 24-hour, general strike on October 19 to protest against the new tax hikes, pension cuts and plans to put tens of thousands of state workers on the road to redundancy.
Greece is trapped in a deepening recession and fighting to control a public debt expected to reach 162 percent of gross domestic product this year, with most economists saying these measures will not be enough to avoid a default.
Euro zone countries are now considering asking banks to accept losses of up to 50 percent on their holdings of Greek debt, officials said on Wednesday, as part of a grand plan to avert a disorderly default and stem a crisis that is shaking financial markets worldwide.
Inspectors from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank concluded a review of Greece’s progress on a first, 110-billion-euro bailout plan on Tuesday.
They gave the green light for euro zone finance ministers and the IMF to release an 8-billion euro aid tranche Greece needs to avoid immediate bankruptcy but said Athens was too slow to implement reforms and warned it must step up efforts if it is to continue receiving aid.
Analysts expect ruling socialist party lawmakers to pass the new austerity measures before an Oct 23 EU summit on the debt crisis. But in a further sign of steep discontent among the party ranks, former Labour Minister Louka Katseli threatened to vote against a provision of the law changing labour rules.
“I will not vote article 37 if the article is not modified, Katseli told Mega TV late on Wednesday. “This article is changing the collective agreements and leads to a deeper recession our economy.”
Additional reporting by Daphne Papadopoulou and Tatiana Fragou; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by James Mackenzie/Maria Golovnina