Greece crippled by strike, protests over austerity

A general strike against new austerity measures crippled Greece on Wednesday and thousands of protesters gathered outside Parliament, where the struggling government sought to push through the cutbacks needed to secure international rescue loans.
Police said some 4,500 people chanted slogans in Athens' central Syntagma Square, as a group of protesters tried to blockade Parliament ahead of the afternoon committee-level debate.
A separate group of 6,500 from a Communist union were converging on the square, while another union demonstration was expected later Wednesday.
Such marches have often turned violent in the past, and some 5,000 police will be deployed to keep the peace. Police used parked buses and crowd barriers to block pedestrian access to Parliament's main entrance.
Police spokesman Athanassios Kokalakis said 10 protesters were briefly detained for trying to prevent lawmakers from reaching Parliament by car.
The strike left state hospitals running on emergency staff, disrupted port traffic and public transport, and forced radio and television news programs off the air. Flights, however, were operating normally after the air traffic controllers' union called off their participation in the strike.
"They keep asking us to give more," said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the civil servants' union ADEDY. "Now, again, they will cut our salaries and bonuses, from the little that we have left."
The government needs to pass a new 2012-2015 austerity program worth (EURO)28 billion ($40.5 billion) this month _ or face being cut off from a (EURO)110 billion package of rescue loans from European countries and the International Monetary Fund.
To meet their commitments, Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists' abandoned a pledge not to impose new taxes and have drawn up a four-year privatization program worth (EURO)50 billion ($72 billion) _ further fueling protests against austerity by public utility employees and other affected groups.
Some of the lawmakers from the governing party have publicly criticized the new cuts. One of them defected on Tuesday, reducing Papandreou's parliamentary majority to five in the 300-seat legislature. Another Socialist lawmaker said he will vote against the bill.
Facing an open revolt from within his own party and a refusal by the main opposition conservatives to back the new austerity bills despite EU pressure for cross-party support, Papandreou was to meet with the country's president later in the day.
With its credit rating deep in junk status, Greece is being kept afloat by the EU and IMF bailout, but will need additional support to cover financing gaps next year as high interest rates will prevent it from tapping the bond market next year, contrary to what the original bailout agreement had predicted.
On Monday night, Standard & Poor's slashed Greece's rating from B to CCC, dropping it to the very bottom of the 131 states that have a sovereign debt rating. That suggests Greece's creditors are less likely to get their money back than those of Pakistan, Ecuador or Jamaica.
It's an astonishing low for Greece. As recently as January 2009, the country still had a stellar A rating despite a hefty debt burden.
Punishing austerity measures have seen the Socialists' popularity plummet in recent weeks. A weekend opinion poll gave the main opposition conservatives a four-point lead over their Socialist rivals, the first time the party has been ahead in surveys since 2009. The next general election is scheduled for October 2013.