Mass protest erupts in Portugal against austerity

Updated: 2013-12-20 13:05


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LISBON - Tens of hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace Thursday in protest against the Portuguese government's harsh austerity budget for 2014.

The protesters held high placards that read "Government Steps Down" and lit up sticks representing the new budget data. A group of protesters even took a donkey carrying loads to mock the government.

"My salary is miserable," said Paula Valente, 46, waving a large red banner. "My salary and my husband's salary put together aren't even enough to make ends meet."

"The first two weeks of the month we managed OK, but the last two weeks? We can only buy the very basics -- milk, bread and soup," she added.

The Portuguese government has been applying harsh austerity policies since the country was bailed out in May 2011 under a 78-billion-euro (106-billion-US-dollar) deal signed with the troika of international lenders - the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

Francisco Carrilho, another protester, said he would not receive his retirement subsidy this Christmas.

"We pensioners don't have enough money almost to eat. The government has plunged this country into total misery," said the 77-year-old retiree.

"This budget aggravates the country's problems which result from the government and the troika's harsh austerity," said Amando Farias, a spokesperson for Portugal's largest trade union, CGTP, which organized the protest.

Among other measures included in the budget for 2014, employees earning more than 675 euros (920 U.S. dollars) per month could see their wages cut by 2.5-12 percent. The government also confirmed Thursday that the retirement age will go up from 65 to 66 from 2014.

The budget was sent to the presidential palace Tuesday and President Anibal Cavaco Silva may send it to the Constitutional Court to rule whether it is in line with the Constitution.

The government, however, has insisted that a new court ruling could endanger the country's deficit reduction target for the next year. The state budget forecasts Portugal's economy to grow 0.8 percent in 2014 and unemployment to rise to 17.7 percent.

Portugal is slowly pulling out of the downturn, with GDP expanding 0.2 percent in the third quarter and unemployment falling in October for the seventh consecutive month. However, worries still linger concerning whether the country will manage a "clean" exit from the bailout program in June 2014.