‘Darn!’ I thought, rushing through the cobbled streets of Exarchia towards Syntagma Square. ‘Am I already late?’ It was only half an hour after the time fixed by the unions for the demonstration. But not only did the main thoroughfares seem full, but people were already looking red-faced and crying from the tear gas. Just like me, hundreds were swarming towards the parliament building, to join the hundreds of thousands protesting in advance of the vote in parliament on new austerity legislation. The image would be similar in all major Greek cities. Videos of demonstrations of support would also arrive from abroad.
As I approached the central square, the crowd got denser and the situation tense. ‘They have nothing more to take from us!’ cried a former middle-class, middle-aged woman, while people stared on with gloomy faces. She was referring to the new €3.3 billion ($4.4 billion) austerity package on which the government was voting in order to receive a new €130 billion ($172 billion) loan. The measures would bring the largest income cuts of the last 60 years, through wage and pension reductions, layoffs in the public sector and liberalization of labour laws. Their likely effectiveness was seen as doubtful – even the Prime Minister had accepted that they would deepen recession in the following months. ‘If one of my students proposed [these austerity measures], I would throw him out of the class,’ an economics professor and former parliamentarian had declared. In any case, with the minimum wage reduced to €16 ($21) per day, the people already knew that the measures would bring further destruction in a country where a third of the population is already on the verge of poverty.
‘You’re trampling on the constitution, you f***ing traitors,’ shouted an old man a few blocks down, looking with fiery eyes towards the parliament. Five well-respected professors of constitutional law had just presented a series of solid arguments as to why the current vote was anti-constitutional, and against European and international law. The vote, however, would still go on – with the finance minister claiming autocratically that no detail should be left undone before the opening of the Asian markets on Monday morning.
My efforts to arrive to Syntagma proved fruitless. Each time the vibrating mass of people tried to reach the square from the surrounding streets, the police pushed them away. Again and again the people marched forward. Again and again the police met them with tear gas and abuse. The Greek medical associations would later condemn the use of dangerous chemicals against the population. But the people stayed on, more determined than ever to show their will.
Together with some friends, we lingered at a bus stop until the air cleared of tear gas, trying to listen on our pocket radios to what was going on inside the so-called ‘temple of democracy’. It seemed to us that the levels of the discussion were higher that at any other time. Many of the MPs from the two coalition parties (the third coalition party had departed from government days earlier), had warned that they wouldn’t support the new measures, even though they had supported the previous austerity packages. Their political leaders demanded party discipline and threatened to expel them; meanwhile, during the debate, one MP threw the multi-page text of the memorandum towards the ministers’ bench. ‘At last, maybe something meaningful could be going on in there,’ we thought. Only later did we see the pictures of other MPs calmly watching a basketball game in the parliament lounge while the country’s neck was on the line.
Night had already fallen and the bins next to us were burning with fires lit by the demonstrators so that the smoke would disperse the tear-gas fumes. Among the buildings we could see more flames, shooting higher. Banks had been set on fire, together with branches of transnational companies and other buildings. There was violence on the streets. But, regardless of one’s opinion about it, it was only to be expected, given the level of systemic violence against the population. What worried us was the way that the mainstream media would use reports of the violence as a way to silence the imposing demonstration against the austerity measures.
When I arrived home later that night and turned on the TV, my worries proved to be justified. So I changed channels and listened instead to reports about the fallout in the two government coalition parties. In the elections of 2009, PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement) won 160 seats and New Democracy 91. After this weekend’s vote, which saw the austerity measures finally passed, PASOK had 131 MPs and New Democracy 62. With the deputies’ resignations and party expulsions, the composition of a fifth of the parliament had changed. It is this parliament which will now make decisions based on measures taken by a government which the Greek people did not vote for. Leading this government is a former banker who represents a party that no longer holds the absolute majority. The imminent reshuffling will probably bring even more technocrats to the higher state posts.
A fire has engulfed the body of Greek democracy. But the people are no longer waiting for ‘national saviours to put it out. They are slowly taking matters into their own hands. And the future remains unwritten.