Greek government faces key test in bill vote

Oct 31, 2012, 4:15 AM EDT
A woman passes an array of displays at the Stock Exchange in Athens Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012.
(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's government faced a vote Wednesday on a privatization bill that will be a major test for its fractious coalition, as the finance minister submitted a draft state budget for 2013.

The bill gives the government more power to privatize public utilities. But it has faced growing dissent from lawmakers among the Socialists and Democratic Left, the two junior partners in the conservative-led coalition formed after June elections.

The country's two largest labor unions will hold a rally in the evening to protest savings measures in the budget, while journalists have walked off the job at the start of rolling 24-hour strikes to protest austerity plans that will affect their healthcare funds.

The strike pulled all television and news broadcasts off the air, while news websites were not being updated and Thursday's newspapers would not be published.

The privatization bill is among reforms required as part of Greece's international bailout agreements, under which the cash-strapped country receives billions of euros in rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund, on condition that it imposes austerity measures to reduce its runaway debt and budget deficit.

Greece has been relying on the bailout funds since May 2010. Without them, it will be unable to pay its debts or continue paying salaries and pensions, leading to a messy default that would threaten its position in the 17-nation bloc that uses the euro as its currency.

The government has been struggling for months to agree with its international creditors on a new package of austerity measures worth €13.5 billion ($17.4 billion) for 2013-14. The negotiations have also revealed cracks in the governing coalition, with the Democratic Left and the Socialists raising objections.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said on Tuesday that the negotiations were over. Voting on the bill has been delayed by another week, and Samaras warned of chaos if it did not pass.

The package of austerity measures is essential for Greece to receive a massive installment of bailout loans, worth euro 31 billion. Without it, Samaras has warned that the country runs out of its euro reserves on Nov. 16.