By Kerin Hope in Athens
A protest by more than 100,000 striking workers did not deter Greek lawmakers on Wednesday evening from approving the country’s latest austerity package at its first reading, by 154 votes to 141.
The result, which followed a day when clouds of smoke billowed over the Athens skyline after angry rioters set fire to piles of rotting rubbish and clashed with police in one of the biggest demonstrations seen in the Greek capital for decades, was a success for prime minister George Papandreou, improving the odds that Greece will be able to draw down the next €8bn tranche of its bailout loan from international lenders.
But Mr Papandreou will face pressure to make changes to the legislation on Thursday during a clause-by-clause discussion and second vote in the 300-member parliament.
Earlier on Wednesday, masked youths threw hundreds of petrol bombs, burning a sentry box outside parliament, and pelting police officers with chunks of marble paving slabs. Riot police responded by firing teargas, while a bank branch had to be evacuated after the ground floor caught fire.
Popular protests have mounted since Greece agreed last month to another €7.1bn of spending cuts and tax increases in next year’s budget, to be achieved through deep cuts in public sector wages and additional taxes.
Groups of protesters tossed some of their petrol bombs into mounds of rubbish festering in the streets around central Constitution Square after a two-week strike by municipal workers. Clouds of acrid smoke drove the strikers out of the square.
The 48-hour strike called by unions representing about half the country’s workforce attracted much higher participation than previous walkouts staged mostly by public sector workers.
“The workers were angry but stayed calm – some extremists hijacked our protest,” said Anastasios Simopoulos, an unemployed factory worker.
Private banks, shops, cafés and supermarkets, which normally stay open for business during strikes, were closed along with government offices, schools, museums, ancient sites, and passenger shipping services.
“This is the most serious strike in years because private businesses are taking part,” said Nikos Tsios, a newspaper-seller as he slammed down the metal shutters of his kiosk. “My situation is getting desperate, people aren’t even buying cigarettes like they used to,” he added.
Air traffic controllers at Athens international airport staged a 12-hour walkout, causing more than 150 flight cancellations and delays.
Riot police blocked access to the parliament building overlooking Constitution Square, the scene of violent protests last June when the previous austerity package was narrowly approved after a threatened rebellion by socialist deputies.