ATHENS, Greece - Thousands marched through Athens Tuesday as trade unions held their third general strike in six weeks, in the run-up to a parliamentary vote on a new austerity program that will condemn Greece to more years of hardship in exchange for the money it needs to avoid going bankrupt.
Flights to and from the country stopped at 10:00 a.m. (0800GMT) at the start of a 48-hour strike that has already closed schools, halted train and ferry services, left Athens without public transport or taxis and state hospitals running on emergency staff only.
An estimated 10,000 supporters of a communist-backed trade union kicked off two days of demonstrations, which will culminate when lawmakers vote late Wednesday on a (EURO)13.5 billion ($17.3 billion) package of spending cuts and tax increases over the next two years.
The outcome of the vote is far from certain, due to disagreements in the five-month-old coalition government and a reluctance among center-left lawmakers to swallow yet another bitter austerity pill. But an anti-austerity vote would almost certainly force Greece to default on its mountain of debt, potentially paving the way to the country's exit from the euro.
Greece's two main unions are holding a separate protest march later Tuesday. Police are on alert for potential violence, as most major anti-austerity protests over the past three years have degenerated into riots.
This is the biggest crisis Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has faced since he formed the coalition in June: His small Democratic Left coalition partner has said it will not back the measures, while a handful of lawmakers from the third coalition party, the Socialists, are expected to rebel.
The government combined has 176 of Parliament's 300 seats, and needs an absolute majority of those present to pass the bill. Without the Democratic Left, Samaras' conservatives and the Socialists theoretically control 160 votes — barring dissenters.
The main opposition Radical Left Coalition has urged demonstrators to surround Parliament during Wednesday night's vote.
"The new measures must not pass for they will turn the country into a financial and social desert," a party statement said. "They will lead us decades back, without medicine or state healthcare, without schools and universities, without a future, with endless armies of unemployed, suicides and desperate people."
The deeply unpopular measures include new deep pension cuts and tax hikes, a two-year increase in the retirement age to 67, and laws that will make it easier to fire and transfer civil servants. The country is suffering a deep recession set to enter a sixth year, and record high unemployment of 25 percent.
If Parliament rejects the package, Greece will lose access to the rescue loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have kept it afloat since May 2010.
The country would then run out of money — as soon as by Nov. 16, according to Samaras — default on its debts and, most likely, abandon the 17-member eurozone. The ensuing hyperinflation and currency depreciation would intensify domestic misery.
The international repercussions would also be severe, amid fears that other troubled eurozone members could follow Greece's lead.
Sky-high interest rates have kept Greece out of international bond markets since 2010. However, the country retains a market presence through regular short-term debt issues — mostly bought up by domestic lenders that need the paper as collateral for vital European financing.
On Tuesday, Athens raised (EURO)1.3 billion ($1.6 billion) in a 26-week treasury bill auction, that saw Greek borrowing costs ease slightly to 4.41 percent, from 4.46 percent last month. The issue was 1.7 times oversubscribed.