LISBON - Tens of thousands of Portuguese civil servants, joined by off-duty police and retired soldiers, marched in Lisbon on Saturday against pay cuts imposed by the government's 2012 budget bill aimed at meeting tough goals of an EU/IMF bailout.
Chanting "IMF get out of here!" and "No to the stealing of our wages!", civil servants packed the wide Avenida Liberdade thoroughfare and the Restauradores Square a day after parliament approved the budget bill in its first reading.
"I'm here today against the untamed robbery by the government, by the state, against all the policies that only upset the workers, the policies that spoil the future of my son, of all the sons of Portugal," said Belmiro Carvalho, a protester who came to Lisbon from the town of Espinho.
Several thousand, mostly retired, members of the armed forces rallied a few blocks away at the finance ministry building on the Tagus river against pay freezes.
Representatives of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are in Lisbon evaluating the country's progress in implementing the bailout plan, under which Portugal has to cut the budget deficit to 5.9 percent of GDP this year from last year's 9.8 percent.
Next year, the gap has to be slashed further to 4.5 percent of GDP, then to 3 percent in 2013.
The 2012 budget bill scraps holiday and year-end bonuses for civil servants and raises taxes on a wide range of products and services, following other pay cuts and pension freezes imposed previously.
Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said earlier it was impossible for the government to accept the opposition's proposals to avoid bonus cancellations next year as this would have a heavy impact on the state's strained finances.
He also said the country would have to put its finances in order itself and could not rely on the European Central Bank stepping in to pay the debts of countries that have failed to keep budget discipline.
Portugal earlier this year became the third euro zone country after Greece and Ireland to get a bailout. It is now enacting painful and unpopular austerity measures to meet the targets of its 78-billion euro EU/IMF bailout.
Mass rallies are not uncommon in Portugal, but they have been much tamer than protests in Greece and other countries. Analysts say social strife is likely to keep growing but do not expect it to get violent or seriously influence the government's resolve in implementing austerity.
Saturday's rally came less than two weeks before a Nov. 24 general strike planned against austerity. Youth movements are preparing a big rally on Nov. 26 ahead of the final budget vote due on Nov. 29.
The centre-right coalition government has a solid majority in parliament and will easily pass the bill.
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