Greek Parliament passes omnibus reform bill, but government majority erodes further

The Associated Press

A protester holds a banner during a protest from the confederation of Professionals, Craftsmen and Merchants against a new austerity bill that will be discussed in Parliament, in Athens on Sunday, March 30 2014. The measures demanded by bailout lenders will be voted on late Sunday, and would liberalize several retail sectors. They include plans to grant supermarkets permission to set up in-store pharmacies, scrap price limits on books and allow a longer shelf-life for milk. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)

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By DEMETRIS NELLAS, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The Greek Parliament passed an omnibus reform bill early Monday containing the latest measures agreed upon between Greece and international lenders, with the slim government majority holding despite suffering new defections.

The government wanted to have the bill approved before an informal meeting of European Union finance ministers and central bankers in Athens on Tuesday and Wednesday. The meeting is expected to give the green light to the disbursement of a further bailout aid to the debt-ridden country. This will not happen immediately because it requires the agreement of all 18 parliaments in the Eurozone.

The 300-member parliament passed the bill in two roll call votes — the first by a 152-135 margin and the second by a 151-136 margin.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras immediately expelled conservative lawmaker and former health minister Nikitas Kaklamanis from the governing coalition for voting "present" in the first roll call.

Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos, Samaras' partner in the coalition government, did not take similar action to expel two lawmakers — former Prime Minister George Papandreou and former parliament speaker Apostolos Kaklamanis, who did not support the government in the second roll call.

The vote followed a tumultuous two-day debate during which the opposition Radical Left Coalition, known by its Greek acronym SYRIZA, attacked the government for trying to ram through a bill running to more than 200 pages, using an emergency debate procedure.

The bill opens up several retail sectors to more competition, but opposition to it focused on two: the lengthening of the shelf life of milk and the sale of non-prescription drugs by outlets other than pharmacies.

The first measure was fiercely opposed not only by the opposition but also by coalition lawmakers representing rural constituencies. The price of milk in Greece is among the highest in Europe, and local producers were opposed to opening the market to foreign imports. Ministers resorted to last-minute negotiating to appease dissenters within the coalition, adding amendments during Sunday's debate and adding fuel to the opposition's complaint that lawmakers were being asked to vote on clauses that they barely had time to read. Deputy agriculture minister Maximos Harakopoulos, who resigned over the issue Saturday, finally voted for the bill.

The opposition also accused the government of adding clauses that would favor banks and certain businessmen.

SYRIZA tried to delay the vote by introducing a motion of no confidence against Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras. This would have required suspending the debate to discuss the motion for three days, but parliament speaker Evangelos Meimarakis ruled the motion procedurally flawed. SYRIZA lawmakers left the chamber in protest but returned toward the end of the debate.

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras went to the square outside Parliament to address several thousand protesters who had gathered Sunday afternoon and dispersed peacefully by the end of the vote.

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