Athens - Greek police fired water cannon and fought running battles with protesters hurling petrol bombs outside parliament on Wednesday during the biggest rally in over a year against spending cuts the country must approve to avert bankruptcy.
Nearly 100 000 Greeks waving flags and chanting “Fight! They're drinking our blood” packed the square outside parliament as lawmakers neared a vote on unpopular budget cuts and labour reforms that the government is narrowly expected to win.
Violence erupted when a handful of protesters tried to break through a barricade to enter parliament, prompting riot police to respond with teargas, stun grenades and, for the first time in an anti-austerity protest, water cannon.
More chaos reigned inside the assembly, where the session was briefly interrupted when parliamentary workers went on strike to protest against a clause that would have cut their salaries. In a humiliating about-face, the government was forced to cancel the measure to allow the session to resume.
“Today we vote on whether we will remain in the euro zone or return to international isolation, meet complete bankruptcy and end up in the drachma,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a final plea to lawmakers to back the cuts and unlock aid.
Outside, loud booms rang out through the evening as hooded protesters hurled molotov cocktails and rocks at police. Billowing smoke and small fires dotted the square and streets next to parliament.
At least 35 people were detained. There were no reports of serious injuries but at least four protesters suffered breathing problems, police said, as protesters dispersed in pouring rain. The anti-austerity rally appeared to be the largest in Athens since summer last year.
“These measures are killing us little by little and lawmakers in there don't give a damn,” said Maria Aliferopoulou, a 52-year-old mother of two living on 1 000 euros a month.
“They are rich, they have everything and we have nothing and are fighting for crumbs, for survival.”
The late-night parliamentary vote on the cuts and tax hikes expected to be worth 13.5-billion euros is the biggest test for Samaras's government since it came to power in June.
A 'yes' will give Athens over 31-billion euros in aid to shore up its ailing banks and pay off debt due later this month, but a 'no' vote would spell disaster for both Greece and his fragile coalition that has bickered for months on the cuts.
Samaras is expected to scrape a win for the belt-tightening measures despite opposition from a junior partner in his coalition, the Democratic Left party, which says they undermine already eroded labour rights. Several MPs from the second ruling party, Socialist PASOK, have also wavered.
Still, barring any last-minute surprises, Samaras's New Democracy and the remaining PASOK MPs should be able to push the measures through, with around 155 of parliament's 300 votes.
Earlier, EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn called on the Greek parliament to do its part in securing its next tranche of bailout aid by passing the measures.
The vote comes on the second day of a two-day national strike called by the country's two biggest unions, which halted public transport and shut schools, banks and government offices. Garbage piled up on streets.
Backed by the leftist opposition, unions say the measures will hit the poor and spare the wealthy, while deepening a five-year recession that has wiped out a fifth of the country's output and driven unemployment to a record 25 percent.
“You live in constant fear and uncertainty. You never know what's waiting for you around the corner,” said Panos Goutsis, 58, who works in a small corner shop in Athens.
“How many times will they tell us these are the last measures? We're sick of hearing it.”
Anger has also been growing at the relaxed approach consecutive governments have taken towards catching tax cheats, with many saying officials have dragged their feet on investigations in order to protect a wealthy elite.
Following the publication last month of a list of more than 2 000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, the Swiss government said on Wednesday it was hoping to clinch a swift deal with Athens on taxing secret holdings. - Reuters