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Greek parliament approves 2012 austerity budget

December 6, 2011
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ATHENS, Greece—Greek lawmakers have approved next year's austerity budget, extending tough spending cuts that have sparked a series of often violent protests.

The 2012 budget passed early Wednesday foresees a fourth year of recession, but also projects a modest primary surplus -- a surplus excluding interest payments on debt -- for the first time in years.

Debt-crippled Greece's financial woes have roiled the euro, with Europe's single currency facing its largest crisis since it went into circulation in 2002.

The country has been relying for financial survival on billions of euros (dollars) in rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In return, Greece cut pensions and salaries while repeatedly hiking taxes to reduce its bloated budget deficits.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Greece's lawmakers were set Tuesday to pass next year's austerity budget, extending tough spending cuts measures that have already left Greeks struggling as the country tries to slash its debts and pull itself out of a severe recession.

With three parties, including the country's majority socialists and their rival conservatives, involved in Greece's new coalition government, the budget is expected to pass with an overwhelming majority in a midnight vote.

The end of the budget debate coincided with the third anniversary of a fatal police shooting of a teenager in central Athens, and as lawmakers spoke clashes broke out in front of Parliament between hundreds of anarchists and riot police during a commemorative march.

Masked youths hurled stones, bottles and firebombs at police, who responded with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades on Tuesday night. Earlier in the day, violence also broke out on the fringes of a separate march by about 2,000 students who clashed with riot police outside Parliament.

Speaking inside the building during the debate, conservative party leader Antonis Samaras said his objections to many of the austerity measures already passed remained, but that he was backing the budget as the priority now was to reduce the debt.

"We are voting today for the budget, firstly because we we are giving immediate priority to to ensuring the viability of Greek debt and to maintain the the targets of fiscal adjustment," he said.

Samaras was a vocal critic of the austerity measures over the past two years, insisting that increased taxation in particular was the wrong method and that taxes should be cut in order to stimulate the economy.

The conservative leader said the crisis had also shown up problems within the eurozone.

"It has been proved that repeated efforts until now to stabilize the euro have failed," he said. "And that the euro crisis is not only due to Greece's bad fiscal situation, but also to the eurozone's inability to deal with its problems."

The 2012 budget foresees a fourth year of recession, although it also projects a primary surplus -- a surplus excluding interest payments on debt -- of 1.1 percent of gross domestic product.

Greece's debt troubles have roiled the euro, with Europe's single currency facing its largest crisis since it went into circulation in 2002. The Standard & Poor's ratings agency placed 15 of the 17 eurozone countries on notice for possible downgrades. The only two it left out were Cyprus, whose bonds have near-junk status, and Greece, whose low ratings suggest it is likely to default on its debts soon anyway.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged changes to the EU treaty that would centralize decision-making on spending and borrowing for the eurozone. Tighter political and economic coordination among euro countries is seen as a precursor to further financial aid from the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or some combination.

Greece has been relying for financial survival on billions of euros (dollars) in rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In return for the first bailout, the country imposed a series of harsh austerity measures, including salary and pension cuts and repeated rounds of tax hikes that have left the country mired in a deep recession.

Despite the measures, the government found itself persistently missing the fiscal targets set out in its first bailout. A second rescue package worth euro130 billion ($175 billion) was put together in October, and includes plans for private creditors to write off 50 percent of their Greek bonds, potentially cutting the country's debt by euro100 billion. Negotiations on the details of the deal are expected to extend into the new year.

A sudden announcement last month by then prime minister George Papandreou that he would put the hard-fought deal to a referendum triggered a political crisis that forced him to step down and a coalition government be formed. A former central banker, Lucas Papademos, has been appointed to lead the interim government until early elections, tentatively set for February.

The crisis has taken its toll on the popularity of Greece's main political parties, though Papandreou's Socialists have taken the severest hit. Just two years after a landslide election victory with 44 percent of the vote, they are polled at enjoying just 15.3 percent support and trail the conservatives who have 21.5 percent, according to a GPO survey for Mega television.

The poll of 1,400 adults was conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 5. No margin of error was given.

According to the poll, the vast majority of Greeks -- 80.7 percent -- believe the country's financial situation will deteriorate further in 2012, while 79.3 percent believe Greece's rescue deal with the EU and IMF failed to resolve the debt crisis.

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Derek Gatopoulos and Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed.

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