The Greek Parliament, by a vote of 152 to 135, in the early morning hours of March 31 approved a critical reform bill needed to release a delayed nine billion euro installment from international lenders, but only after vehement criticism from opponents who said it harm pharmacies, independent stores and small businesses.
The vote took place against the backdrop of protests outside Parliament in Syntagma Square although nearly four years of demonstrations have failed to do anything to keep successive governments from imposing austerity measures on the orders of international lenders.
The government was backed by a warning from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that the pending nine nine billion euro installment would be held up unless the package was passed in its entirety without a single change.
The omnibus bill had been in some jeopardy after eight lawmakers from the ruling parties said they would vote against it because of a provision extending the shelf life of fresh milk when they felt would bring in foreign competition and harm Greek dairy farmers but they relented.
Alternate Agricultural Development Minister Maximos Harakopoulos, who had threatened to resign unless the milk provision was changed, went through with his threat and stepped down from his post but voted for the bill he opposed because he said he didn’t want Greece to lose the Troika money.
Because the government had ordered the arrest of leaders of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party, six of them Members of Parliament, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader, and his partner the PASOK Socialists needed only 148 votes instead of the 153 it would have required previously to pass legislation.
Several days before the vote, Samaras said: “All of the country’s successes have been recognized, there will be no more austerity and, most importantly, we have maintained all our red lines,” in reference to the agreement with the Troika, which formed the basis for the reforms included in the multi-bill.
“This is the only thing that counts today and nobody can dispute it. Our MPs know this. They are responsible and have already shown it,” added Samaras.
The major opposition party Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) said the bill was the beginning of a new round of austerity and that it was based on the principles of “internal devaluation, medieval labor laws, the destruction of social security funds, the recapitalization of banks and favoring major multinational interests.”
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras said that if his party came to power, it would withdraw all the provisions in the bill, which he described as “barbarous,” and put on trial for “criminal breach of faith” those involved in compiling the legislation.
He was particularly upset over bank recapitalization which has seen the government give the banks 41 billion euros so far with plans for another injection of at least 6.4 billion euros at the same time the government has set aside a bill providing debt relief for Greeks crushed by austerity measures imposed on orders of the Troika.
The government is going to allow the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (HFSF) to participate in banks’ capital share increases even if the price is lower than what the recapitalization fund paid when it purchased a stake in the lenders last year. “The government has agreed with the Troika to give away the banks to foreign funds,” he said in Parliament.
A number of other groups were upset with the bill, including pharmacists who will see their monopoly end on the sale of non-prescription drugs that could now be sold in supermarkets, which would also be allowed to open in-store drugstores.
Druggists are on strike over it. The head of their association, Kyriakos Theodosiadis, said they would launch legal action in Greek and European courts against the bill, which removes almost all the restrictions on who can open a pharmacy and where. “They are favoring the supermarket cartel and putting a nail in the pharmacists’ coffin,” he said.