Greek ministers appeal to MPs to back austerity plan

Greek ministers urged wavering members of the ruling Socialist party on Saturday to do their duty in a knife-edge vote in parliament next week and back painful austerity measures that lenders demand as the price for fresh bailout loans.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos offered to talk to any MP who might have concerns. «I believe that the sense of responsibility will ultimately prevail, the God of Greece is great,» he said on TV station Alter.

With Prime Minister George Papandreou’s majority down to a handful of votes, one deputy from his PASOK party said on Friday he would vote against the measures, joining another party rebel who announced his opposition earlier this month.

The mix of spending cuts, state selloffs and tax hikes demanded by international lenders to reduce Greece’s enormous public debt has caused bitter resentment among ordinary Greeks, who have taken to the streets in daily protests.

A two-day general strike is planned next week to coincide with the votes, following a rolling series of strikes at companies including Greece’s dominant electricity producer PPC, which is slated for privatisation next year.

Unable to borrow on the markets because of the ruined state of its public finances, Greece depends on international support to avert bankruptcy in the next few days, an event that could plunge the global economy into turmoil.

But international lenders have demanded a clear commitment to reform and if parliament fails to back either of two key austerity votes on June 29 and 30, the EU and the IMF may refuse to release a vital 12-billion euro funding that Greece needs immediately or to approve a new bailout package.

Athens accepted a package of 110 billion euros of EU/IMF loans in May 2010 but now needs a second bailout of a similar size to meet its financial obligations until the end of 2014, when it hopes to return to capital markets for funding.

Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou urged his fellow MPs to back the unpopular measures. «They must shut their ears to all the criticism they are hearing and do their duty,» he said in an interview on TV station Mega.

Despite heavy pressure from European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the conservative New Democracy opposition party, has refused to support the package, meaning two or three votes either way could decide the outcome.

Papandreou’s government now has 155 seats in the 300-strong parliament. Austerity measures have cost the Socialists five defections since their October 2009 election victory with a majority of 160 MPs.

The embattled prime minister last week sacrificed his previous finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, in a reshuffle to smooth the passage of the austerity plan but opinion polls still show him trailing the opposition.

Papandreou’s MPs solidly backed the new government in a vote of confidence on Wednesday. . But doubters maintain their opposition to higher taxes and the planned sale of shares in some state-controlled companies.

“Shops are shutting down every day and we are taking anti-growth measures,» party maverick Thomas Robopoulos, a car dealer from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, and one of the few businessmen in parliament told Reuters.

Austerity measures have pushed Greece into its deepest recession in 37 years, with GDP declining more than 4 percent last year. Unemployment has surged to a record 16.2 percent in March with youth jobless rates now at 43 percent. .

Venizelos acknowledged that many of the measures he agreed with inspectors from the EU and the IMF late on Thursday were unfair and harsh, but said they were necessary to stave off default. [Reuters]

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