For Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, winning the vote of confidence in Parliament was the easy part. His ruling Socialists hold a slim majority, and last week’s cabinet reshuffle elevated party hardliners to keep rogue deputies in line. The vote, held just after midnight on Wednesday morning, passed 155 to 143.
Now, back to the hard part: Papandreou’s embattled government resumes the deeply unpopular austerity program that’s supposed to save Greece from defaulting on its massive national debt. Euro-zone leaders say the government must approve €28 billion of cuts, tax hikes, financial reforms and privatization in a June 28 vote before Greece receives the latest installment of bailout loans to allow it to keep paying off its debts.
Since last year, when Greece imposed a program of deep budget cuts and tax hikes in exchange for more than $150 billion in bailout loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund , austerity has increasingly become a dirty word for many Greeks. “Austerity means unemployment, a dead economy and a 45% cut to my pension after I worked almost 40 years to get it,” says Dimtrios Kountomerkos, a 58-year-old Athenian who retired from the Hellenic Air Force two years ago. “And still, after all these cuts, everyone says we’re going to default again. What’s the point?”
Kountomerkos and two of his friends were among the thousands who were waiting outside Parliament last night for the outcome of the vote. They drank beer and booed each time a deputy voted to support Papandreou’s government. Most of the crowd was aligned with the aganaktizemenoi, the revolution-minded Greeks who have camped out for weeks in Syntagma Square across the street from Parliament. Modeled after Spain’s young indignados, who protested their nation’s own austerity cuts, the aganaktizemenoi represent the most visible revolt against Papandreou, whom they deride as a weak leader carrying out orders from international lenders instead of looking out for the Greek people. Many of these protesters are left-wing activists who oppose capitalism and blame banks for Greece’s problems. They want to upend a political system they see as irrevocably broken, and call Papandreou’s government a “junta” to associate it with the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1967-74. It’s a painful jab at Papandreou, who hails from Greece’s most powerful family, which was chased out of the country by the military dictators.