New Public Sector Cuts: Austerity as Usual in Greek Parliament

By in Athens

Photo Gallery: Greece Slims Down Photos
REUTERS

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras may have but a razor-thin majority in parliament. But on Wednesday night, that was all he needed to push through thousands of public sector layoffs. The opposition, though, is getting louder.

For a man thinking of launching an insurrection, Michalis Tamilos looks quite cheerful. Early on Wednesday evening, Tamilos, a deputy with the conservative New Democracy party, was sitting in a salon inside the Greek national parliament building. Oil portraits of Greek politicians from times gone by hung on the walls. In just a few hours, parliamentarians were to gather for a vote crucial on the country's future. Yet again.

This time, the focus was a law that would put thousands of civil servants out of a job -- part of the painful package of reforms that Greece committed to in exchange for emergency bailout aid. Some 4,000 people are to lose their jobs by the end of this year. By the end of 2014, that number is to climb to 15,000.

It is only the most recent of the myriad cuts undertaken by the Greek government in recent years. On paper, the country's leaders in Athens would seem to be well-practiced reformers. But it is a course that led to the collapse of the Socialist government under Georgios Papandreou -- and one that could ultimately destroy that of his successor, current Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. His coalition came close to collapse last month in the wake of his unilateral decision to shut down public broadcaster ERT. The station is back on the air, but Samaras lost a coalition partner, leaving him with a majority of just a handful of delegates in parliament.

Michalis Tamilos is one of those who, prior to the Wednesday evening vote, had not yet committed to support Samaras. He had reserved the right to rebel against both Samaras and his own party, primarily because the new law called for laying off municipal police officers. Furthermore, municipalities would ultimately be responsible for 70 percent of the new cuts even though they represent just 15 percent of public sector spending, said Tamilos, formerly the mayor of a small town in central Greece.

Exemptions

But Tamilos is in a good mood nonetheless. The minister in charge of the layoffs had promised Tamilos that he would exempt police officers from the list of job cuts.

Given such concessions, it is hardly surprising that Greece regularly misses the austerity targets it has set for itself. There have, of course, been recent signs that the situation is gradually improving, such as climbing exports and a shrinking budget deficit. But key reform projects, such as the privatization of state-owned companies, are way behind schedule. And when it comes to public sector layoffs, it isn't even clear yet who is to be affected by the first wave of cuts.

"We pass resolutions, but we don't ever implement them," Tamilos says, adding that he understands how that could frustrate other countries in the euro zone. But, he says, it is his job to represent the interests of his electorate. It is a conundrum that has dogged Greece's efforts to confront the vast debt and economic crisis which has enveloped the country. Few in Greece doubt that reforms are necessary, but when it comes to actually making needed cuts, powerful interest groups stand in the way.

Because prosperity also improves one's ability to lobby politicians and obstruct reforms, it is often less well-off Greeks who bear the brunt of austerity measures -- people like Konstantinos Doganis. The 78-year-old wears a well-trimmed beard and is neatly dressed. On Wednesday evening, he joined several thousand demonstrators in front of the parliament building in the heart of Athens. While others were chanting loudly, whistling or lighting off flares, Doganis stood silently, regularly pulling new protest signs out of a large plastic bag. One of them depicts German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who is visiting Athens on Thursday. Doganis has drawn a Hitler moustache on Schäuble's face and dressed him in a Nazi uniform, just as he has Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Burn It Down

Doganis is surrounded by photographers. Images of him with his signs are perfect for illustrating that Greece is a country full of people who hate Germany. But when asked, Doganis happily tells of the 17 years he spent in Germany, where he washed dishes in Greek restaurants and lived with a German family. Germans, he says, are very hospitable and he has nothing against them. But he is furious that the German government has refused to pay reparations to victims of Nazi crimes committed in Greece during World War II. And he is angry that Berlin supports policies that will see his pension fall to a mere €202 ($264) per month.

There was also no shortage of attacks on Germany and Schäuble during the debate in parliament on Wednesday evening. Panos Kammenos, head of the right-leaning, anti-austerity party Independent Greeks, held an emotional speech in which he called the German finance minister an "economic murderer," for example. Not long later, he was back in his seat, joking with another deputy about the leftist alliance Syriza. At the time, it was the only group in parliament whose deputies were almost all present. Elsewhere, particularly among parties belonging to the governing coalition, empty seats were plentiful.

The reason, of course, is that most parliamentarians had long since decided how they were going to vote. When the voting actually started at around 11 p.m., there were few surprises. There were only two renegades among coalition lawmakers. Even former Prime Minister Papandreou, who has been a rare sight recently, showed up to cast his vote for the austerity package. New Democracy deputy Tamilos likewise fell into line.

It was yet another vote that promises to increase the fury of those, like the pensioner Doganis, who must suffer. He doesn't deny that his country needs a change. But, when asked what should be done first, the pensioner points at the parliament building and says: "That should be burned down."

With reporting by Giorgos Christides

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