Greece: Up to half a million people protest at Syntagma Square

socialistparty.net spoke to Andros Payiatsos, from Xekinima (The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Greece) a participant in last weekend’s huge protests in Athens.

Last Sunday, the Greek parliament voted to make new austerity cuts that are demanded by the EU and IMF in return for a huge bailout, to prevent Greece defaulting on its massive debts. The savage austerity measures were demanded by the European Union as a precondition for releasing the funds. But the cuts provoked a massive response by the Greek workers, with a 24 hour strike on Tuesday 7th February and another 48 hour general strike on Friday and Saturday 10th and 11 of February. This is unprecedented in the post war history of the country. Enormous protests took place throughout Greece.

How big were last weekend’s demonstrations against the latest austerity cuts?

The demonstration on Sunday 12th February, in central Athens, was enormous despite all attempts of the media in Greece and internationally to downplay it. It was called by the unions and supported by all the main left parties. Up to half a million people marched and rallied at Syntagma Square, outside the national parliament building. Salonika and other Greek cities and towns and islands like Corfu and Crete also saw huge demonstrations. The Greek media underplayed the scale of the protest but people flowed endlessly out of the metro stations in central Athens becoming a tidal wave of protesters. It seemed that virtually everyone turned out to oppose the latest draconian cuts, the diktats of the Troika and the Greek government voting through more savage cuts. Even metro trains from the richer northern suburbs of Athens were full.

Was last week’s 48 hour general strike effective?

Sunday’s rallies were preceded by the two general strikes mentioned before which succeeded in shutting down all industry, public services and transport. The whole of society was once again paralysed by a tremendous display of workers’ collective action against cuts. The demonstrations on those two days were relatively small. Most working people saw Sunday as the crucial day for protesting; as it was the day parliament would vote on the cuts (and transport was running). So, Sunday saw working people back in strength, out in the streets in huge numbers.

The international media mainly reported on the riots and clashes between some protesters and riot police. What was the real character of the street demonstrations last Sunday?

There were some very large trade union contingents taking part in the 12 February mass protest in Athens. A union linked to the KKE (Greek communist party) had a contingent of many tens of thousands. I would estimate close to 100,000 people. But the vast majority of people came to protest without aligning themselves to any banner. Many came with their friends and families to show they were opposed the cuts. The mood of demonstrators was very angry. People shouted “thieves” and “liars” and “traitors” at the parliament building, as the MPs deliberated over new cuts that will pauperise even bigger parts of the population.

However, clashes between riot police and rioters (anarchist groups play a role in this but so do provocateurs) started at around 5.30pm. The police acted brutally, indiscriminately attacking all demonstrators and using tear gas. This is their normal tactic. The anarchists gathered around them some youth, many of whom are understandably enraged by the situation and conditions they suffer. Unfortunately, some of these youth were drawn into reckless and counter-productive acts including lootings by the desperate plight they face. Some reports say that up to 93 buildings were destroyed or damaged. No doubt, agent provocateurs were amongst the ‘anarchists’ as well, as we have seen many times before in Greece. Even ambulance crews and fire fighters were attacked as they tried to deal with emergencies and fires.

Despite all this, many protesters stayed at the square in their tens of thousands.

What will the new cuts package mean for working people and the poor?

This new austerity package is an assault on the poorest in society. The minimum wage will be cut by 22% to just 480 euros net per month. For under 25 year olds, it is a 32% cut, which means living on 430 euros a month. But the worst affected are the young work apprentices (nearly all young employees are now branded ‘apprentices’). They will see their monthly wage cut to a mere 350 euro.

As well as this, the measures include making 15,000 public-sector workers jobless immediately with the longer-term aim of shedding 150,000 civil servants’ jobs. Labour laws will be ‘liberalised’ to make it easier for bosses to fire workers.

All this comes after years of austerity cuts that have left one in three Greeks living in poverty, rising homelessness, crime, alcohol and drug addiction and broken families. Greece is in its fifth year of recession/slump. Soup kitchens in Athens now cater for many thousands, including educated professionals as well as immigrants. 30,000 homeless are now living on the streets of Athens, a phenomena of negligible proportions until recently. The Orthodox Church says it is feeding 250,000 people a day.

Can the Greek coalition government carry out the cuts?

The so-called ruling ‘grand coalition’ government, headed by an unelected, EU-imposed ‘technocrat’, is actually very weak. A week ago, the three coalition parties, PASOK, New Democracy and LAOS, had a big majority of 266 MPs out of 300 MPs. But the austerity bill was voted through by just 199 MPs. This is because many MPs felt the heat of the mass opposition and decided not to vote against the cuts or to abstain, usually to try to save their political careers.

These dissident MPs were expelled by their parties, forming the largest group in parliament, which has caused a political earthquake. PASOK (over some months) and New Democracy, in one fell swoop, lost 29 MPs each. PASOK now has fallen to 131 MPs from 160, in a parliament of 300 seats. ND fell from 91 to 62. The demagogic, far right LAOS lost 3-4% poll support in one week and felt compelled to exit the government just before the vote. Nevertheless, two of its ex- ministers broke ranks and voted for the cuts.

PASOK and New Democracy now make up the government with just 193 seats between them. The previously ruling party, PASOK, has collapsed to only 8.7% support in polls. ND has gone down by 10% in just over a week to 21 %. The “grand coalition” of the ruling class parties only represents 30.1% in society according to the most recent polls. At the same time over 75% of their voters are opposed the policies of the two main parties.

In reality therefore this government is hanging by a thread. The only reason it is still in office is because neither the unions nor the left parties have a plan to bring it down. Thus, if the measures do go through it will only be because the left and the unions have allowed it – by their refusal to organise a proper fight back.

Can the Left win elections?

The government stated this week that an election will be held in April. Pasok is set to suffer huge losses at the hands of the electorate and likewise the New Democracy.

At the same time, the left is picking up in the polls. The KKE and SYRIZA now have a huge opportunity and jointly have over 30% in the polls. But to really capitalise on the situation they must adopt fighting socialist policies and lead the mass struggle to overthrow this government and to defy the demands of the financial markets. They need to urge their supporters to initiate mass meetings in all the work places to organise mass occupations and prepare for an indefinite general strike to overthrow the government.

Although the government managed to get the cuts passed in parliament, it is hanging on to power by a thread and is extremely unstable. The huge anger in society and opposition to cuts has not abated. The unions have shown a glimpse of their power but have not moved to decisively get rid of the government. The Left parties rhetorically call for the fall of the government and for elections but take no concrete initiatives in this direction. The KKE and the Synaspismos left current call abstractly for “strikes, occupations, revolt” etc but do not give any concrete proposals to organise strikes and occupations to develop the struggle.

The main left parties, KKE and SYRIZA not only refuse to put forward a socialist programme, which is essential in this situation. They even refuse to collaborate together in the forthcoming elections. If they agreed to this they would emerge as the largest political force in Greece. The current election system gives the leading party in the polls an additional 40 parliamentary seats so they could even form a majority government on this basis.

What does Xekinima call for?

The economic and political turmoil is bound to continue. The unions are discussing another general strike within days. But this must not just be to let off steam but a serious effort to kick out the government. We call for the organising of an indefinite general strike action, for mass occupations and protests, to bring down the government. It is a government of thieves which has lost the trust of the people. Democratically elected assemblies in all the districts need to come together on a city wide, regional and national basis to lay the basis for a government of the workers and those exploited by this system with a programme to end capitalism.To cancel the debt and to end all cuts. To nationalise the banks and major companies and run them democratically by working people and introduce an emergency democratic plan to rebuild the economy.

Xekinima supporters who are helping to lead an occupation of the Health Ministry sent out appeals to all the left rank and file unions asking for support, especially from the unions in the health sector. We are also using this as a base to call for the expansion of occupations to other ministries , local councils etc.

We call for a wave of new city square occupations in Athens and Salonika and other cities and towns, for example, to create a focus so that resistance can continue, to build for, and to encourage, a new strike wave, and a wave of workplace, college, school and community occupations. We have proposed to all left groups an initiative to come together and try and take an initiative around this demand. We are still waiting for the response of other left forces.

What is the socialist answer to the crisis?

The Greek media now openly discusses life outside the euro-zone. They speculate that Germany may now want the ‘lost cause’ of Greece out of the euro. Some right-wing German politicians believe that ECB actions over the last months are enough to ensure there will be no contagion effects from Greece to other debt-ridden euro-zone members or to the fragile European banking system. This is one hell of a gamble!

Not surprisingly, in polls, 54% of Greeks are now “against the EU” and 35% are “against the euro”. Despite their fears of the ‘unknown’, many Greeks ask themselves can the situation be any worse outside of the euro-zone.

The leader of Synaspismos went on TV last Sunday and called for a “tougher bargaining” position by Greece! But as long as you accept the constraints of the market economy, the EU powers will only ever give Greek workers the ‘choices’ of savage cuts.

The surge in support for the KKE and Syriza shows that the Left is in a position to potentially form a majority government. The rank and file of the Left parties and unions need to organise from below for socialist policies and democratic, campaigning structures, to fight for a government for working people, which would repudiate the debt, take the economy into democratic public ownership, under workers’ democratic control and management, introduce jobs and a living wage for all and massive investment in welfare, education and housing along with the production of basic good which have ground to standstill. A workers’ government would link up with the working class of the other debt-stricken EU countries and the workers movement through-out Europe, say no to the capitalist EU, and fight in a collective struggle for a socialist confederation of the continent.