Bulgaria’s government resigned on Wednesday after violent nationwide protests against high power prices, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during Europe’s debt crisis. Greece, too, witnessed nationwide strike over job cuts and high taxes.
In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard who swept to power in 2009 on pledges to root out corruption and raise living standards in the European Union’s poorest member, now faces a tough task to prop up eroding support ahead of a probable early election.
Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where living standards are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting “Mafia” and “Resign”.
On Tuesday, 11 people were hospitalized - including one man bleeding heavily from the head - and 11 arrested after protesters threw flares at police, who fought demonstrators with shields and truncheons.
“I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people,” Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state’s communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, said as he announced his resignation on Wednesday.
Parliament is expected to accept the resignation later in the day. The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov’s domineering manner and unpredictable decision making.
The prime minister made sacrifices in an attempt to cling on, sacking his finance minister, cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing foreign-owned companies, a move that conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.
Borisov’s rightist GERB party is the dominant faction in parliament but will not take part in talks to form a new government, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said, indicating that an election planned for July will now be held early.
“He made my day," student Borislav Hadzhiev, 21, in central Sofia said, commenting on Borisov's resignation.
“The resignation is the only responsible move,” said Kantcho Stoychev, an analyst with pollster Gallup International. “It also gives Borisov some legitimacy to stay in political life in the future, despite the violent police actions last night.”
Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Athens on Wednesday during a nationwide strike against wage cuts and high taxes that kept ferries stuck in ports, schools shut and hospitals with only emergency staff. Beating drums and chanting “Robbers, robbers!” more than 60,000 people marched to parliament in the biggest anti-austerity protest so far this year.
The two biggest labor unions brought much of crisis-hit Greece to a standstill during the 24-hour protest against policies which they say deepen the hardship of people struggling through the country’s worst peacetime downturn.
Representing 2.5 million workers, the unions have gone on strike repeatedly since a debt crisis erupted in late 2009, testing the government’s will to impose the painful conditions of an international bailout in the face of growing public anger.
“Today’s strike is a new effort to get rid of the bailout deal and those who take advantage of the people and bring only misery," said Ilias Iliopoulos, secretary general of the ADEDY public sector union which organized the walkout with private sector union GSEE.
“A social explosion is very near,” he told Reuters from a rally in a central Athens square, as police helicopters clattered overhead.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s eight-month-old coalition government has been eager to show it will implement reforms it promised the European Union and International Monetary Fund, which have bailed Athens out twice with over 200 billion euros.
It has taken a tough line on striking workers, invoking emergency laws twice this year to order seamen and subway workers back to their jobs after week-long walkouts that paralyzed public transport in Athens and led to food shortages on islands.
Labor unrest has picked up in recent weeks. A visit by French President Francois Hollande in Athens on Tuesday went largely unreported as Greek journalists were on strike.
"Greece is making a huge effort to return to growth, to see better days, and when we're doing everything we can to attract investment, this image does nothing to help this effort," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told Greek radio.
In a sign it may be buckling under pressure, the government announced on Monday it would not fire almost 1,900 civil servants earmarked for possible dismissal, despite promising foreign lenders it would seek to cut the public payroll.
"The strike highlights the growing gap between the plight of ordinary Greeks and the demands of Greece's international creditors," said Martin Koehring, analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, forecasting more social unrest this year.
Greece secured bailout funds in December, ending months of uncertainty over the country's future in the euro zone, and analysts said this had created expectations among Greeks that things would improve for them personally.
"If these expectations are not satisfied by the summer, then whatever is left of the working class will respond with more protests," said Costas Panagopoulos, head of Alco pollsters.
Six years of recession and three of austerity have tripled the rate of unemployment to 27 percent. More than 60 percent of young workers are jobless.
Most business and public sector activity came to a halt with schoolteachers, train drivers and doctors among those joining the strike. Banks pulled down their shutters and ships stayed docked as seamen defied government orders to return to work.
"I'm on the brink of going hungry. My life is misery," said Eleni Nikolaou, 60, a civil servant who supports her unemployed brother on her reduced wage. "If this government had any dignity it would resign. I want them to leave, leave, leave."