By Darren Mara
Greece was hit by a sixth round of general strikes on Thursday as divisions persist between the government and opposition forces over a controversial austerity program to cut the country’s soaring national debt.
An estimated 12,000 people took to the streets of Athens with banners attacking the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. A further 5,000 marched in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Train, bus and ferry services all suffered cancellations or delays because of the strikes, as did nearly 200 domestic and international flights as air traffic controllers also walked off the job. Public offices and hospitals were also hit by walkouts.
The general strike came only hours after the Greek parliament increased the retirement age to 65 as part of pension reforms aimed at savings billions of euros.
Debt estimated at 300 billion euros
The latest measure is part of government efforts to slash the country’s debt – estimated at around 300 billion euros ($378 billion), or around 13.6 percent of gross domestic product – in exchange for a 110-billion-euro loan from the EU and the IMF that has saved it from defaulting on its debt.
Strikes against the cuts are expected to continue, however the number of those protesting has gradually decreased in recent months.
Demonstrations were also called in cities around Portugal on Thursday, as unions there rallied people to protest similar government spending cuts aimed at reducing that country’s debt.
The Portuguese Socialist government ordered one round of spending cuts in February and a second round in May, which included higher taxes, lower welfare payments and a public sector hiring freeze.