Greek govt introduces austerity bill amid mass strikes

Greece's government introduced a new austerity bill Monday needed to get a creditor lifeline for the cash-strapped nation, where public transport and media workers went on strike to protest the new cuts.

Lawmakers will hold an emergency vote Wednesday on the 1,500-page bill, which proposes 18.5 billion euros ($23.6 billion) in new cuts and other reforms by 2016, said parliament officials.

The bill was introduced to parliament several hours behind schedule, as the coalition government's three leaders grappled for a compromise on the latest cuts.

As a week of wide-ranging strikes got under way Monday, the Athens metro was shut and only one tram line was running, while taxi drivers halted services, severely disrupting traffic in the capital.

The country was also hit by a media blackout as print, broadcast and electronic media journalists staged a 24-hour strike.

Service at hospitals was slow as only some employees turned up to work.

The union of the public electricity company DEI meanwhile announced renewable 48-hour strikes from Monday evening, although it did not say whether this would lead to power cuts.

The latest savings plan includes salary and retirement cuts, reductions in civil servant staffing and further labour market deregulation.

Implementing the austerity plan is a precondition for Greece to qualify for a 31.5-billion-euro tranche of bailout funds from the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

Without it, Greece risks bankruptcy in mid-November.

Eurozone finance ministers are meeting in Brussels on November 12, but are unlikely to take a formal decision on a Greek bailout loan, a European official said Monday on the sidelines of a meeting of Group of 20 leading world economies in Mexico City.

The Eurogroup meeting will be "a stage", the official said on condition of anonymity, adding: "We don't have a gun held up to our heads to reach a formal decision on the 12th."

In Greece, the mass walkout is expected to intensify throughout the country on Tuesday and Wednesday as public union GSEE and private union Adedy have both called general strikes.

Bus workers are expected to join the stoppage from Tuesday, completing the public transport shutdown in Athens, while ferry lines to surrounding islands will be cut for 48 hours.

A three-hour work stoppage on Tuesday has also been announced by air traffic controllers.

In addition, unions have planned demonstrations from Tuesday in the centre of Athens against the package of cuts and other reforms.

The Greek daily Ta Nea noted wryly that the "parliamentarians are faced with an unpleasant job".

On Sunday, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras stressed the importance of approving the package, saying the country could be forced out of the eurozone if parliament were to veto the measures.

"We must save the country from catastrophe.... If we fail to save the euro, nothing will make sense," he said.

The Dimar party, which has 16 deputies, has suggested it will vote against the bill because of objections to the proposed new labour market deregulation measures, while up to five socialist lawmakers could also defy Samaras.

The dissenters would leave the government with a narrow majority, with just 154 to 159 seats in the 300-member assembly, the Greek press said Sunday, while predicting nevertheless that the measures would go through.

Evangelos Venizelos, who heads the socialist Pasok party and is former finance minister, reaffirmed his support for the government but said he recognised the difficult choice deputies must make in voting for the "painful" measures.

In an interview with Ethnos newspaper, Dimar party leader Fotis Kouvelis restated his opposition to the proposed labour reforms, accusing Samaras and the international creditors of trying to distance the party and bypassing it.

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