Sunday, 11 November 2012 16:17
ATHENS: Greece's government faces another crucial test Sunday when lawmakers vote on the 2013 budget just days after parliament narrowly adopted an austerity package aimed at securing a new slice of international aid for the debt-crippled country.
Unions have called for protests outside parliament from 1500 GMT as MPs debate the budget legislation, which includes another 9.4 billion euros ($12 billion) in spending cuts and paints a gloomy outlook for the country's finances.
"The year 2013 is crucial for kickstarting the Greek economy, " Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras told parliament on Saturday, while acknowledging the painful sacrifices endured by Greeks who are facing record unemployment heading into a sixth year of recession.
The austerity measures in Greece, the most economically-troubled nation in the eurozone, have triggered a number of general strikes and angry street protests in major cities that have frequently turned violent.
The coalition government led by conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras controls 169 seats in the 300-member assembly, but could be hit by defections as it was in the vote on the austerity package that squeezed through parliament on Wednesday.
The budget must pass if Greece is to have any chance of unlocking a 31.5 billion euro ($40 billion) tranche of bailout funds from its three international creditors -- the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
Without the funds, Greece risks default on November 16, when the government -- in the midst of its biggest crisis since taking office in June -- must repay a three-month treasury bill worth five billion euros.
Eurozone finance ministers meet in Brussels on Monday, although they are not expected to strike a deal on the aid. Germany, Europe's paymaster, has warned it could be weeks away as the creditors try to agree on how to deal with the problem of Greece's massive debt mountain.
Stournaras insisted last week that "there is no reason to worry", while one EU official said Greece's creditors would find ways to avoid a default.
"There will be no default, not accidental, not premeditated," the EU official said on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in an interview with Sunday's Die Welt newspaper that the ball was in Greece's court even after lawmakers approved the latest 18.5 billion euro austerity package demanded by creditors.
"Nobody in the eurozone opposes the idea of accepting the payment of the next tranche of aid," he added. "But only when the conditions have been met. And that, that is for the government in Athens to take care of."
The 2013 budget predicts the economy will shrink by a worse-than-expected 4.5 percent next year, the sixth year of recession, while the public deficit -- the shortfall between government revenue and spending -- is forecast to rise to 5.2 percent of gross domestic product.
Public debt is also seen swelling to 346 billion euros ($450 billion), a massive 189 percent of economic output, compared with a target set by creditors who want the figure slashed to 120 percent of GDP by 2020.
The 9.4 billion euros in cuts wil mainly hit state wages, pensions and benefits, already drastically reduced over the past two years in a country where unemployment is now at a record level of more than 25 percent.
But the government, which is currently surviving on two huge bailout packages from its creditors, will still need to borrow over 68 billion euros next year, the draft budget said.
Stournaras sought on Saturday to put up an optimistic front, saying: "A short time ago, Greece was a step away from quitting the eurozone. This is no longer the case."
The budget is expected to pass on Sunday although Samaras's three-party coalition has lost 10 deputies since taking power in June and the austerity package squeezed through with just 153 MPs voting in favour.
Junior partner the Democratic Left refused to support the package and seven deputies from the coalition's other two parties also jumped ship and were promptly kicked out of their political groups.
Going into Sunday's vote, Samaras's conservative New Democracy has 126 lawmakers, the Socialist Pasok has 27 and the Democratic Left 16.
Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012