Greece Prepares for Privatization of Biggest Power Company

Greece Prepares for Privatization of Biggest Power Company

Greece approves a reform bill that paves the way for the sale of nearly a third of its biggest power producer, in a move protested by workers and the main opposition, who want the Public Power Corp. to remain in state hands.

ATHENS, Greece -- Greece approved a reform bill on Wednesday that paves the way for the sale of nearly a third of its biggest power producer, in a move protested by workers and the main opposition, who want the Public Power Corp. to remain in state hands.

The plan to privatise PPC is part of Greece's efforts to liberalize its energy market, one of the conditions demanded by its European Union and IMF creditors before they disburse the next tranche under Greece's 240 billion-euro bailout.

Hundreds marched to parliament late on Wednesday as lawmakers inside prepared to vote, unfolding banners that read "We're not selling it" and "We will resist."

Striking electricity workers caused brief power outages across the country in the middle of its tourism season last week before the government took legal action and forced them back to work.

Athens has been planning for years to transfer part of the company, which is 51% state-held, to rivals, aiming to spur competition in its ailing electricity industry.

Defending the Proposal

On Wednesday, Energy Minister Yannis Maniatis defended the plan as "one of the biggest reforms that has been discussed in our parliament over the last years."

"I believe it is for the benefit of our national economy, of Greek society, of our country," Maniatis told lawmakers before calling on them to back the bill, which allows Greece to spin off 30& of the power utility next year.

PPC generates about two-thirds of Greece's electricity output and controls almost 100% of the retail market. Its annual sales are about 6 billion euros.

It is also one of the world's biggest miners of lignite, a soft, brown coal seen as a heavy polluter.

The opposition and labor unions have opposed the plan, arguing it would lead to higher tariffs for Greeks struggling to make ends meet and fewer jobs.

"Electricity is a public good, not a commodity to be sold off cheap, and those who do so must be held accountable to society," public-sector union GSEE, which joined the rally, said in a statement on Wednesday. "The fight against the privatization of PPC is a long one and it will not end even after the bill in question is passed."

A total of 51 lawmakers of 98 present during parliament's summer session voted in favor of the bill and 46 against. One abstained.

'Troika' Inspectors Visit

The passage of the bill coincided with the start of a visit to Athens by inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and European Central Bank — the so-called "troika" of lenders demanding austerity.

The inspectors, who are in Athens to check on Greece's progress under the bailout program, are due to meet newly appointed Finance Minister Gikas Hardouvelis on Thursday.

Earlier, Greek state doctors, school guards and prison staff marched to parliament at the start of a 24-hour strike by public-sector workers against firings imposed as part of the EU/IMF bailout.

Greek labor unions have fiercely resisted government plans to shrink the 600,000-strong civil service through layoffs or transfers of workers. They fear the measures will further worsen the plight of Greeks struggling through a six-year recession.

Greece is beginning to emerge from its protracted recession, but anti-austerity sentiment remains high. Repeated rounds of spending cuts and tax hikes since its rescue from bankruptcy in 2010 have driven up unemployment and homelessness and eroded living standards.

"Everyone must come out onto the streets to help get rid of them [the government]," Evangelia Alexaki, an unemployed cleaner, said from the rally. "It's time for them to go. If they don't leave, we are lost."

By Karolina Tagaris | Additional reporting by Gina Kalovyrna | Editing by Larry King

Copyright Reuters 2014

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