ATHENS, Greece — Public opposition to austerity budgets deepened in Greece on Monday, with judges stopping work, doctors going on strike and public transport staff and schoolteachers planning action for later this week. The moves are a prelude to a general strike called by the country’s main labor unions for Sept. 26.
The protests are gaining steam even as Europe’s fears of a Greek exit from the eurozone seem to be subsiding. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said she wanted Greece to stay in the euro union, reiterating what appears now to be her steadfast position after months of hesitating on the issue. “I think that everyone who is politically sensible will want that, too,” she said during a news conference in Berlin.
Her remarks came as the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, renewed efforts on Monday to come up with a tough new 11.5 billion euro, or $15 billion, austerity package. The additional cuts are needed to meet the terms of Greece’s 130 billion euro bailout and to unlock a 31.5 billion euro loan installment that Athens hopes to receive in October to stay solvent.
Faced with rising discontent, Samaras has been asking Greece’s international creditors for more time to impose any new cuts, lest the economy, which contracted by 6.2 percent in the second quarter, go further into tailspin.
Over the weekend, European finance ministers meeting in Cyprus seemed willing to give Greece some breathing room. Finance Minister Maria Fekter of Austria said in a newspaper interview that Greece could get more time to meet its targets, but not more money.
Still, Samaras faces an uphill battle. Last week, in an unprecedented repudiation, Greece’s so-called troika of lenders – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – rejected about 4 billion euros of Samaras’ proposed cuts, saying in effect that they did not think he would be able deliver.
The troika is said to be unconvinced by suggestions for cutbacks in the health and defense sectors and is pushing the government to turn to the civil service – a sacred cow and influential voting bloc that few Greek politicians have been willing to touch. The Greek finance ministry, in turn, is reportedly considering raising the retirement age to 67 from 65.
As protests mount, opposition parties have been gaining ground in the polls.