ATHENS Greece's coalition government hopes to overcome its own divisions and defy protesters' fury at parliament's gates on Wednesday to push through an austerity package needed to secure an injection of aid and avert bankruptcy.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to narrowly win support for the budget cuts, tax hikes and labor reforms. The smallest party in his conservative-liberal coalition oppose the measures, leaving him with a margin of just a handful of votes.
Tens of thousands of union workers plan to descend on the assembly in a second day of a nationwide strike that has brought most public transport to a halt, shut schools, banks and government offices, and caused garbage to pile up on streets.
Backed by the leftist opposition, unions say the measures will hit the poor and spare the wealthy, while deepening a five year recession that has wiped out a fifth of the Mediterranean country's output and driven unemployment to 25 percent.
"If lawmakers vote in favor of the measures... they will have committed the biggest ever political and social crime against the country and the people," said Nikos Kioutsoukis, secretary general of the private umbrella union GSEE.
"We won't let them destroy the country."
The wage cuts and tax hikes amounting to 13.5 billion euros by 2016 will unlock a loan tranche of more than 31 billion euros ($39.63 billion) from a European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout.
The bailout was put on hold in recent months when it emerged Greece had fallen far short of earlier fiscal commitments.
The vote is the biggest test for Samaras's government since it came to power in June. A 'yes' vote will give Athens cash to shore up its ailing banks and pay off debt coming due late this month. A 'no' could rend apart the fragile coalition.
Jean Claude Junker, chairman of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers, said Greece had no choice but to continue painful cuts in its bloated public sector.
"Our Greek friends have no options or choice," he told the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Singapore.
"They have to do it. And my impression is that the reforms which are (being) undertaken in Greece are increasingly better understood by the Greek citizens."
DIVISION OVER LABOUR
Samaras has said the package will comprise the last cuts to wages and pensions, cold comfort for middle class Greeks, whose living standards have plummeted in repeated deficit-slashing schemes that have hit wage earners and retirees hardest.
"You live in constant fear and uncertainty. You never know what's waiting for you around the corner," said Panos Goutsis, 58, who works in a small corner shop in Athens.
"How many times will they tell us these are the last measures? We're sick of hearing it."
The austerity measures are accompanied by steps to make it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers, including reductions to severance pay and the warning employers must give workers before they let them go.
The junior ruling Democratic Left party has refused to support these, saying they have no bearing on Greece's fiscal targets under the bailout plan. A handful of MPs from the second ruling party, Socialist PASOK, have also wavered.
But the Democratic Left has pledged to vote "present" rather than "no" to the measures, which should allow Samaras's New Democracy and the remaining PASOK MPs to win a vote expected late on Wednesday with around 154 of Parliament's 300 seats.
The small leftist party has also said it will back the 2013 budget in a vote on Sunday, a second hurdle Greece must clear to receive the aid tranche and seen as a confidence vote in the government.
The protests will put deputies under added pressure, as throngs of detractors are expected to gather on parliament's doorstep in Syntagma Square, frequently the site of violent clashes between black-hooded demonstrators and police.
Crowd numbers are seen eclipsing the 16,000 that showed up in marches on Tuesday, union leaders said, as Greeks look for a way to denounce a government they accuse of sparing the country's wealthy from feeling the pain of the crisis.
"They've taken everything we have - our money, our jobs, our lives - and they won't stop until they've finished us off to satisfy the Europeans," said Popi Alexaki, 40, a former nurse in a dentist's office who lost her job in August.
"They make me sick. Enough, enough, enough!" ($1 = 0.7823 euros)
(Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Kevin Lim; Writing by Michael Winfrey; Editing by Peter Graff and Anna Willard)