- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A swelling tide of strikes has been sweeping Greece in what newspapers call “an October of discontent,” threatening the country’s long-lasting socialist government and its attraction for tourists.

The government is burdened by a growing budget deficit and a ballooning military debt. Above all, it seems unable to adequately apply funds provided by the European Union, thus diminishing the largesse from the European coffers.

The strikes that began Monday are mainly for higher wages in a country plagued by the “onward adjustment of prices” after the adoption of the euro, the joint European currency.

They involve civil servants, schoolteachers, university professors, airline personnel, museum guards, taxi drivers and doctors in state hospitals. Some walkouts are scheduled in advance; others erupt unexpectedly.

Yesterday, riot squads fired tear gas and clashed with scores of protesting police officers who had blocked the entrance to the Greek Foreign Ministry, the Associated Press reported. Authorities said at least one protester was injured in the pre-dawn clashes lasting more than two hours.

The uniformed police officers were joined by colleagues from the fire department and coast guard in the protests.

Opinion polls predict the ouster of the ruling Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) of Prime Minister Kostas Simitis in the legislative elections due to be held by May.

Poll show PASOK trailing by almost eight percentage points behind the conservative New Democracy Party. Government spokesman Christos Protopappas dismissed the polls as “stale and irrelevant.”

The government has offered a 3 percent salary increase to diplomats and 9.8 percent for teachers. It claims it cannot do more because of a budget deficit reaching $8 billion, almost double the official forecast for 2003.

Despite considerable relaxation of tension with Turkey, Greece’s historical enemy, military spending has been growing and is expected at the end of the year to reach $10 billion, or 6 percent of the gross domestic product.

Opinion polls and an increasing number of commentators say PASOK is riven by internal crises and too dependent on business interests.

Antonis Karakousis, writing in the Athens daily Kathimerini, said the main reason for the socialists’ weakness “appears to be the party’s long stay in power.”

“A big segment of the population favor a political changeover,” he wrote. “PASOK … has been in charge too long, they say, thus obstruction change and fresh ideas.”

Foreign diplomats say Mr. Simitis has been aware of such a situation for some time and has initiated several reforms since his last mandate in 2000. However, “the exuberance of victory made the socialist blind to the need for change,” on view said.

A conservative Greek commentator said “the load on the shoulders of the socialists is almost unbearable. They have done virtually nothing for the past few years.”

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