ATHENS (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Greeks began a crippling 48-hour strike on Tuesday to protest against a new round of wage and pension cuts that parliament is expected to approve by a narrow margin.
The parliamentary vote on Wednesday is the biggest test yet for the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, which needs victory to secure aid from foreign lenders but has failed to convince its smallest coalition partner and the public to back the reforms.
The strike, called by Greece's two biggest labour unions representing half of the four million-strong workforce, brought public transport to a virtual standstill and shuttered schools, banks and local government offices.
A crowd of about 16,000 protesters - fewer than is usual during Greece's frequent strikes - gathered outside parliament in Athens, waving flags, beating drums and chanting "People, don't bow your heads!" and "This strike is only the beginning".
It was the third major walkout in two months against the package of public spending cuts and reforms making it easier to hire and fire workers, which many Greeks feel penalise the poor and spare a wealthy elite.
"The measures are wrong, the politicians and the rich aren't paying their taxes and the only ones paying are those on 300 and 500 euros a month," said Dimitris Karavelas 42, who has been forced to shut down his small construction company.
Successions of strikes since Greece fell into crisis in 2009 have so far failed to prevent parliament from approving the international lender-prescribed cuts, which have inflicted misery on the country and kept the economy in a deep recession.
"TO HELL AND BEYOND"
The government has implored Greeks to endure the cuts to avoid national bankruptcy and promised this will be the last round of pain. Greeks, who have seen many such promises broken before, have responded with a mix of resignation and anger.
"They should go to hell and beyond," said Anais Metaxopoulou, a 65-year-old pensioner. "They should ask me how I feel when I have to go to church to beg for food. I wouldn't hurt a fly but I would happily behead one of them."
Parliamentary approval for the package - which includes cutting pensions by as much as a quarter and scrapping holiday bonuses - is needed to ensure Greece's European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders release more than 31 billion euros of aid, much of it aimed at shoring up banks.
With 16 deputies from the small Democratic Left planning to vote against reforms and a non-committal response from at least five Socialist lawmakers, Samaras can count on the support of only about 154 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament.
Any further defections from the Socialist PASOK party could put the government at risk of falling below the 151 votes needed to pass the measures, ushering in political chaos that would once again raise fears of a Greek euro zone exit.
NOTHING LEFT TO CUT
Exasperated by years of broken promises to reform, Greece's lenders have warned Athens that it cannot afford to fail again.
"Our Greek friends have no options or choice. They have to do it," said Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers. "I am very optimistic."
Trains, buses and the subway came to a halt as the strike began. Many flights have been cancelled, ships remained in port and taxi drivers stayed off the streets.
The opposition anti-bailout Syriza party, which polls show is leading in popularity, called for a big turnout in rallies against measures it said would deal a "final blow" to society.
Police beefed up security to prepare for clashes with hooded protesters that usually mark demonstrations.
But by 1330 GMT demonstrators had peacefully dispersed from Syntagma Square, where protesters have frequently clashed with police in front of parliament.
Greece's economy has shrunk by a fifth since the debt crisis exploded. Public debt is seen at 189 percent of gross domestic product next year and Athens is expected to be widely off track from targets under its latest bailout agreed with the troika of the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
Many Greeks say the latest cuts will do little to solve the country's debt problem and instead could tear society apart.
"Someone needs to tell them there's nothing left to cut," said Vassilis Dimosthenous, a 50-year-old construction worker who has been without a job for 10 months. "They've made our daily lives unbearable. If only I was 10 years younger I'd leave this place."
(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim in Singapore, Writing by Deepa Babington; editing by Janet McBride)
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