Flights to and from Greece were grounded, trains and ferries suspended their routes and public services were paralyzed Wednesday as angry Greek workers went on strike to protest harsh new spending cuts aimed at saving their country from bankruptcy.
The 24-hour general strike shut down schools and customs offices and left hospitals working with emergency medical staff. The Acropolis and all other ancient sites were closed, while journalists also walked off the job, suspending television and radio news broadcasts.
Two protest marches were planned for central Athens — the first major demonstrations since the new measures were announced Sunday. With such marches often turning violent in Greece, more than 1,500 police were to be deployed to monitor them.
Public and private sector unions concede that the cash-strapped government was forced to slash spending, including cutting salaries and pensions for civil servants, and increase consumer taxes, to secure a vital euro110 billion ($144 billion) three-year loan package from European partners and the International Monetary Fund.
But they say low-income Greeks will suffer disproportionately from the measures, which aim to save euro30 billion ($40 billion) — the country's current budget deficit — through 2012.
"There are other things the (government) can do, before taking money from a retiree who earns euro500 ($660) a month," said Spyros Papaspyros, leader of the ADEDY civil servants' union.
Almost every big protest this year has been marred by violent clashes between protesters and police. Two months ago, rioters even chased ceremonial guards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the parliament.
Discontent has intensified, as civil servants and pensioners face deep income cuts and consumer taxes have been increased again.
"People are very angry, and many outside Athens don't realize what has happened," said retired civil servant Spyros Antonopoulos, 78. "When they get their next check, they'll come to Athens with their children and grandchildren to protest.
"The way things are going, I won't buy any new clothes — I'll keep taking my trousers back to the tailor to get them patched up. ... I'll wear them inside out if I have to."
Despite the strike, the draft bill of the new austerity measures were to be discussed at committee level in Parliament Wednesday afternoon, and are to be voted on Thursday. Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists hold a comfortable majority of 160 in the 300-seat Parliament, and with a simple majority of 151 votes needed, the bill is expected to be passed easily.
Late Tuesday, main opposition leader Antonis Samaras said his conservative New Democracy party would vote against the bill because it disagreed with the government's handling of the crisis.
Papandreou had been hoping to bring opposition leaders on board, insisting that the measures were essential if the country is to survive. But opposition parties have harshly criticized his handling of the crisis, and Samaras' move to vote against the legislation was more a symbolic gesture.
"In any case, the government does not need our vote to have the law approved," he admitted, adding that his party would respect the Socialists' commitments to the EU and IMF if elected to power.
New Democracy is trailing the Socialists by 10 percentage points in opinion polls, after suffering a crushing defeat by the same margin in national elections in October. Papandreou has blamed New Democracy for the crisis, saying they mishandled the country's finances in their five years in power, and fudged statistics to show a much lower budget deficit.