KASTRO, Greece (Reuters) - Three years ago, a young Greek opposition politician named Alexis Tsipras clambered onto a tractor to give a rousing speech to hundreds of cheering farmers blockading the roads, vowing to ‘crush’ harsh reforms that he said were leading nowhere.
But now, as the prime minister who had to promise fresh austerity in return for a new multi-billion euro bailout last year, on pain of ejection from the euro zone, Tsipras would not be so welcome in the tractor convoys once more vowing to bring Greece to a standstill.
“Tsipras is a liar,” spat Yiorgos Kostakiopoulos, a father of three blockading the Kastro junction about 100 km northwest of Athens, who said his livelihood growing wheat and cotton was threatened by plans to overhaul the state pension.
“He was here with us, told us that he would fight with us for a dignified income for us and our children. He lied, he imposed more taxes than all the others put together.”
Up to 350,000 people who declare farming their sole activity will see their contributions to a national insurance scheme triple if reforms proposed by Tsipras’s leftist-led government are adopted.
The bill is designed to save 1.8 billion euros this year, and is key for the first review of Greece’s EU-led bailout, which the coalition wants to conclude swiftly so that it can open talks on long-term debt relief.
But approval of the bill, likely to come to a vote early next month according to government officials, is far from certain, with wavering leftist lawmakers from farming regions threatening to cancel out Tsipras’s three-seat majority.
The Labour Ministry says more than 80 percent of farmers declare an annual income of less than 5,000 euros, implying that in some cases they are understating earnings and contributing less than they should be.
As a result, the state now covers about 90 percent of farmers’ pensions, something it says it cannot afford in the face of massive unemployment and lower social security contributions.
But the farmers argue that they have already been hit particularly hard by broader reforms, including an abolition of fuel subsidies and hefty increases in taxes on fertilizer and animal feed.
At least one leftist lawmaker has said he will reject the reform and others are demanding changes. The main opposition and other smaller parties have vowed to vote against.
The government says it is open to changes but that, without any reform, farmers will be left without a pension.
“We are ready to make corrections ... provided however we do not yield from the basic principle that we cannot have second-class citizens,” said Labour Minister Georgios Katrougalos.
“We cannot leave farmers without a pension.”
But 40-year-old Yiota Karamani, sitting atop her tractor in Kastro, said she was already in arrears on her contributions, and that the planned increase would spell disaster.
“My home, our fields are mortgaged to the bank ... I couldn’t even afford to get presents for my three children at Christmas,” she said.
“If Tsipras wears trousers, he should revoke these measures or quit. He was here, with us ... and he lied.”
Writing By Michele Kambas; Editing by Kevin Liffey