Greece's ruling coalition appears to be splintering with several cabinet members either resigning or pledging not to support a government austerity package demanded by the country's international creditors in return for bailout funds to save the country from bankruptcy.
The political infighting came as Greek unions launched a two-day national strike on Friday to protest against the planned measures, hours after European finance ministers said the country needed to make more cuts.
At least three cabinet members from the right-wing LAOS party quit their posts, after their party leader had earlier announced that his bloc would not be voting for the proposed budget cuts, despite having ostensibly approved them earlier.
Marilisa Xenogiannakolpoulou, the country's deputy foreign minister and a member of the Socialist PASOK party, also resigned in protest, state television reported.
Xenogiannakolopoulou's party says it stands by the government's plan, however.
"In the crucial parliamentary votes ahead, the national interest requires a responsible stance and positive vote by all lawmakers so that the country can safely get out of the crisis," PASOK party spokesman Panos Beglitis said in a statement.
"We are experiencing tragic moments,'' Theodoros Pangalos, the Greek deputy prime minister, told parliament on Friday. "These days are the last acts of a drama that we all hope will lead to a happy conclusion with a voluntary reduction in our public debt and implementation of a framework by 2015 that will allow the economy to stabilise.''
Eurozone's demands mounting
The Greek coalition government, led by Lucas Papademos, the unelected prime minister appointed in November to deal with the financial crisis, had hoped the country's crisis would ease after leaders agreed to austerity measures they hoped would pave the way for the $173 billion (130 billion euro) bailout package.
However, finance ministers from the other 16 eurozone states insisted that Greece save an extra $430 million (325 million euros), pass the cuts through parliament and guarantee in writing that they would be implemented even after planned elections in April.
Many Greeks, already suffering from five consecutive years of recession, are increasingly angry about the measures, which are unlikely to quickly help an economy where one in five is unemployed, businesses are failing and household incomes are falling.
Papademos and the heads of the three parties backing his government have already agreed to deep private sector wage cuts, civil service layoffs, and significant reductions in health, social security and military spending.
Clashes in Athens
Strikers brought the metro and buses to a halt on Friday, and ships were docked in the country's main ports, not long after another nationwide action on Tuesday.
Doctors, bank employees and teachers also walked off the job, although flights were not affected by the strike, an airport official said.
"The measures included in the new memorandum ... are the 'tombstone' of the Greek society," the civil servants' union ADEDY said in statement. "It's time for the people to speak up."
Clashes erupted outside parliament in Athens, as dozens of hooded youths threw fire bombs and stones at police, who responded with tear gas, but the violence was not prolonged.
Police said about 7,000 people took part in the demonstration, while another 10,000 supporters of the country's Communist party held a separate, peaceful march.
The square earlier echoed with loudspeaker calls to rally against the measures: "No to layoffs! No to salary cuts! No to pension cuts! Do not bow your heads! Resist!"
The euro and shares fell on Friday, reflecting concern over a possible failure in the debt restructuring after the European Union and International Monetary Fund indicated that Greece's spending and wage cuts did not go far enough.
Still, the EU Commission's president said he expected a deal to go through.
"I am confident that a solution will be reached next week as this is critically important for Greece and the Greek citizens first and foremost but also for the whole euro area,'' Jose Manuel Barroso said on Friday during a visit to India.
I therefore call on the responsibility and the leadership of the Greek leaders and all members of the eurozone so that we can obtain this goal that is important for the euro area and indeed for the global economy.''
Some Greek newspapers seemed to support the demands.
"Greece's credibility is zero. That is why the troika (of officials from the EU, IMF and European Central Bank) is asking for written assurances and the voting of the implementation laws," financial daily Imerisia wrote in an editorial.
"Let us decide ... if we want to continue being part of the eurozone or if we wish to walk down a dark path."
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|Timothy V. Gatto|
|William A. Cook|