* Protests return after summer lull
* Governments looks secure for now except Portugal
* Situation volatile, could change in medium term
By Daniel Alvarenga and Karolina Tagaris
LISBON/ATHENS, Oct 19 After a lull during the
summer, street protests and strikes are mounting again in the
debt-laden countries of southern Europe as harsh austerity
programmes cause ever more pain.
But with the possible exception of Portugal, where months of
quiet resignation have changed to anger, the unrest seems
unlikely in the short term to topple governments more in thrall
to market forces pushing for debt cutting than domestic
The readiness of southern populations to take much more pain
is diminishing, however, and the situation could change quickly.
"I don't think we have seen nearly the amount of social
unrest that we will in the next 12 months or so," said Megan
Greene, an analyst at Roubini Global Economics.
"Six months in the euro zone crisis is a pretty long time
... there has been more austerity, so the economy is in worse
shape in each of these southern countries and the goodwill
amongst the public for taking these measures on the chin has
The Portuguese showed a remarkably high level of acceptance
for cost cutting after Lisbon took an international bailout in
2011, but that mood has changed dramatically in recent weeks and
support for the centre-right government is crumbling.
Trade unions in both Spain and Portugal have called a
general strike for Nov. 14 against policies that have hiked
unemployment and plunged the two countries deeper into
It will be the first time in Spanish history that two
general strikes have been held in the same year.
In Greece, which sparked the euro zone debt crisis in 2010
and where there have been two general strikes in the last three
weeks, unions have vowed to join the Iberian stoppages.
Greece has always seen the more dramatic opposition to
austerity with occasional pitched battles between protesters and
riot police in central Athens.
There were more clashes with protesters throwing stones and
petrol bombs during the latest strike on Thursday when 40,000
people took to the streets.
But the appetite for sustained protest has been replaced by
weary resignation among people struggling to get by in the face
of soaring unemployment and shuttered businesses in the worst
downturn since World War II.
The number of protesters in Athens on Thursday was less than
half the 100,000 who camped outside parliament in June last
"There is a sense of surrender to the current situation,
which is bad, but also toleration of it for fear of something
much worse," said Theodore Couloumbis, vice president of the
ELIAMEP think tank.
Unlike most Mediterranean countries, Spaniards protested
right through the summer and the average number of
demonstrations has risen to six a day in Madrid, one of the
highest levels in Europe.
A recent survey showed 77 percent of Spaniards support the
protesters and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's popularity has
fallen to under 30 percent from nearly 45 percent last November
when he won a landslide election victory.
That win gave him a powerful parliamentary majority that
insulates him against protests although he needs to convince
uneasy investors he can keep a lid on social unrest.
Rajoy is more troubled by regional elections in Galicia and
the Basque country this weekend and then in Catalonia next
month, when he may be punished for his unpopular handling of a
crisis which has brought the highest euro zone unemployment
outside Greece, tax hikes, spending cuts and a bailout for
Spain's troubled banks.
With Spain at the centre of euro zone concerns, Rajoy is
expected to finally accept a euro zone rescue package in
November to prevent the country's borrowing costs becoming
Of all the Mediterranean countries, Italy has seen little
serious street unrest or strikes, with technocrat Prime Minister
Mario Monti somewhat insulated until elections next spring by a
broad parliamentary coalition that includes the union-backed
centre-left Democratic Party.
Despite constant criticism and a vague threat of a general
strike from the largest, leftwing CGIL union confederation,
Monti has been little troubled by labour protest. But the CGIL
will hold a day-long protest rally in Rome on Saturday.
Portugal bucked the trend in other southern countries when
its long acceptance of austerity measures imposed by
international lenders suddenly turned to anger and protest in
September after a bungled government attempt, since abandoned,
to raise social security contributions.
To compensate, it announced sweeping income tax hikes and
thousands have taken to the streets to demonstrate, raising
fears the coalition could split under the pressure.
The junior coalition partner, the CDS party, has vowed to
support a budget that includes the steepest tax rise in
Portugal's democratic history in a parliamentary vote on Oct.31.
But the Social Democratic-led government of Prime Minister
Pedro Passos Coelho still looks fragile as protests grow.
"The protests are in a crescendo and very significant. The
criticism is general and comes from the streets, opposition,
former politicians and even from within the government itself.
They are under a lot of pressure," said Marina Costa Lobo, a
political scientist at the University of Lisbon.