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Ahead of austerity cuts, Greek protests get violent

Athens descended into violence Wednesday when a few hundred protesters clashed with riot police ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote on new spending cuts.

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The reforms aim to lower public debts but will in the process also hurt the economy, which is set to enter a sixth year of recession with unemployment at a record 25 percent.

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'Will they starve?'

"You are throwing people onto to the street, people who need a few more years till they get their pensions," said Panagiotis Lafazanis of the main opposition Syriza, or Radical Left, party. "What will happen to them? Will they starve? ... This is an illegal and unconstitutional law."

Opposition parties accused the government of trampling on Greece's constitution with the proposed cuts in pensions and benefits, and complained that the bill, several hundred pages long, was too complex to be debated in a single session.

Meanwhile, judges in the country's Supreme Court ruled that new cuts to their own pay contained in the draft bill were illegal.

Socialist MP Theodora Tzakri verbally shredded the bill, but said she was forced to back it as Greece had no other way of raising the funds it needs.

"The recession has exceeded every limit, and not only is no light visible at the end but we are still at the beginning of the crisis," Tzakri said. "I will vote for the measures with a gun to my forehead."

Greece's main trade association warned that the new cutbacks would further reduce consumer and government spending, driving more retailers out of business.

"To vote for the measures ... will deal the coup de grace to an exhausted and battered society," association head Vassilis Korkidis said.

Lawmakers interrupted Wednesday's debate as Parliament employees went on strike to protest cuts to their wages that Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras brought in a last-minute amendment to the bill. Stournaras later withdrew the amendment, and the tempestuous debate resumed after Parliament employees returned to work.

What about Germany?

While Samaras has been facing increasing pressure at home, other members of the eurozone have been doing what they can to ensure Greece stays in the currency group. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has softened her tough stance — paving the way for a deal to give Greece more time to meet its loan conditions.

Even if Parliament approves the draft legislation, it is unlikely that Greece will receive the next bailout installment in time for Samaras' Nov. 16 deadline. The payment was expected to be approved at a meeting of European finance ministers on Monday Nov. 12.

However, the ministers' vote hinges on a report by the so-called troika of austerity inspectors from the European Union, IMF and European Central bank, which may not be ready in time. Furthermore, some eurozone countries can only give the go-ahead after their own Parliaments have voted on it. Germany is not expected to do so before Nov. 19.

As a result, the EU or ECB may have to step in with some interim financing.

The 48-hour general strike against the bill shut down the public administration, left hospitals functioning on emergency staff and closed schools and tax offices. All ferry and train schedules have been canceled until Thursday, flights were disrupted by a four-hour air traffic controllers' strike and Athens was without public transport for most of the day.

The country's biggest union has also called for a demonstration on Sunday evening, when the 2013 state budget is due to be voted on.

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Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.

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