“Thieves – hustlers – bankers,” read one banner as tens of thousands of people packed the main Syntagma square outside parliament to vent their frustration over rising joblessness as austerity bites, blaming the crisis on political corruption and government incompetence. Turnout was the biggest so far in a series of 12 nightly protest gatherings in the square inspired by Spain’s protest movement. According to the Athens News reporters on site the number of protesters exceeded 500,000 at around 22:00 on Sunday. Security was also stepped up around the parliament, with the area blocked for the first time by barricades set by the police.
In the daily sea of protesters, several hundred people also gather around a circle to hold a popular assembly every night. The gathered crowd, with ages ranging from 20 to 60 years old, attentively listen to a string of speakers before an open microphone. Someone with a box hands a number to whomever raises their hand and the speakers are called up in order.
Something’s happening here much in the way it did several thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece, but exactly what is not quite clear. That’s because it’s being defined every night on the square, where the popular assembly responds to proposals with the vigorous waving of raised hands.
The common denominator appears to be a push towards direct, or at least a more participatory, democracy, bred by deep anger over failed state and social institutions. And there is a set determination not to let political parties and unions hijack the protests.
The rhetoric from many in the assembly is decidedly leftwing, though that by no means defines Syntagma’s sprawling mass.
A fiery speaker in his 50s says that freedom doesn’t come overnight. Another says that there can be no democracy without popular control of banks. Yet another criticises the concentration of Greek flags atop the square at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, claiming that they seek to usurp the banner of patriotism.
A nascent effort emerges on May 29 to start defining in some detail the goals and demands of participants. A new banner says no one will leave before the government, the troika and the national debt are gone, wiped away.
One speaker calls for the creation of permanent sub-assemblies to flesh out proposals in thematic areas such as politics and the economy, labour relations and the environment. The idea seems more akin to a legislative assembly, as if the protesters are about to rule rather than push for the satisfaction of a few clear demands.
Cabinet to discuss new economic plan today
The cabinet of Prime Minister George Papandreou would on Monday discuss an economic plan, which a senior government official said would impose 6.4 billion Euros of budget measures this year alone, on top of austerity measures already imposed under Greece’s original international bailout plan agreed last year.
The medium-term plan includes tax increases while the international lenders are pushing for a crackdown on widespread tax evasion. The black economy is thought to amount around 20 to 30 percent of the gross domestic product.
As Greece battles to avoid defaulting on its debt, which totals about 340 billion Euros, unemployment has soared to almost 16 percent, and those are just the normal figures because with all the cutbacks many people are making under the table wages to just get by. The extra austerity is the price for a new bailout agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to replace the old one, which has proved overoptimistic in assuming Greece could resume borrowing commercially early next year.
Protesters from all over Greece on the square rejected the austerity policies to cut the budget deficit that lead to layoffs, wage and pension cuts and a heavier tax burden. “You got the disease, we got the solution — revolution,” read one banner. “We don’t owe, we don’t sell, we don’t pay,” read another, hung on the square’s lamp posts.
Students, pensioners, young couples with their children and immigrants, were among those gathered on the square over the past week, while protesters also gathered in Greece’s second city of Thessaloniki, in the Port of Patras and other major cities.
Organizers say they are determined to continue indefinitely as the number of people joining the Facebook group “Angry at Syntagma” is growing.
The signals of a crisis of confidence in the political system are multiplying, within a rising social backlash over an economic package (2012-2015) that features a litany of tougher austerity measures.
PASOK MPs could vote down the programme
PASOK’s parliamentary group is a cauldron of dissent over many of the tough measures stirring jitters that some could vote down the programme. The MPs are now openly complaining that they are being called in to rubberstamp a programme in which they had no say in.
In an open letter to Prime Minister George Papandreou on June 2, sixteen of them demanded that he convene party organs so they can be briefed on the new austerity programme. They also demanded that the bill be put to a vote article by article.
Their concern is justified. The new plan abolishes the national collective bargaining contract by lowering the minimum monthly wage, features a barrage of tax hikes and slashes social services.
The MPs’ letter is the latest signal that the ruling party has been split by the policies laid down by Greece’s lenders: steep tax hikes, big wage cuts and a sweeping privatisation plan that will bring about 150,000 layoffs.
Many fear a complete selloff of all state-owned assets on extremely unfavourable terms. The Eurozone’s demand that foreign technocrats without democratic legitimisation control the privatisation programme has caused an uproar.
The selloffs are already stirring a strong social backlash, with employees at state-owned companies staging or planning to stage sit-ins and strikes: staff at TT Hellenic Postbank went on strike on May 30, OTE phone company workers will hold a nationwide strike on June 2, court employees from June 6 to10, while a massive general strike, under the umbrella of the GSEE and ADEDY labour confederations, will take place on June 15.
New Democracy begins to gain voter momentum
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, for the first time leading PASOK by a hair’s breadth in some polls, appears to be wavering between the piecemeal support he is offering the government on elements of the bailout package and the strong anti-memorandum rhetoric he uses in stump speeches to the party faithful.
Addressing his parliamentary group on May 30, he adopted a conciliatory stance, emphasising those measures for which ND can lend support. Two days later, on a tour in Crete, he returned to his familiar anti-memorandum position, declaring he cannot “offer consensus on a mistake”.
Samaras’ ambivalence is not difficult to understand. On the one hand, he wants to seem reasonable to his European critics, including fellow conservative leaders, who have clamoured for consensus in Greece. On the other, the conservative leader is keen on riding the tidal wave of popular indignation over draconian austerity, which holds an electoral jackpot of undecided voters.
Fiscal disaster has sharply divided the academic and intellectual community. A number have stressed that the bailout package violates the Greek constitution by ceding state sovereignty and property with the approval only of the finance minister.
But in a dramatic plea on June 1, thirty-two prominent academics and artists called on parties to rally together or else be “charged with the destruction of the country”.