Last night, the Greek parliament voted on the latest round of austerity measures. The vote however nearly didn’t take place. Earlier in the day, Syriza MPs had tried to get the bill declared unconstitutional on the basis that MPs had barely a day to study 300 pages of cuts totally 13.5bn euros. A hasty vote was called, and the measure was declared perfectly constitutional by those who wished it passed, despite including cuts to journalists and engineers pension rights that the parliament had rejected only the previous week.
A further problem arose at 6pm when the workers in the parliament, who had not joined the two day general strike discovered that the latest round of salary cuts in the bill included their own salaries and threatened walk out and join those on the barricades outside. Hasty assurances were given that this provision would be changed allowed the vote on the bill to go ahead, whether these promises will be kept by a government which is losing legitimacy by the second is anyone’s guess. This is measure of how dysfunctional the Greek state currently is – cut to the bone, it requires brute force and threats to push through legislation, which if the MPs actually read, would balk at, and it cannot even rely on the continued acquiescence of the workers who facilitate the process.
This brute force was very much in evidence outside the parliament. Approximately 100, 000 people joined the rally from the unions, left political parties and from anarchist organisations. The rally was called for 5pm, but when the first major round of teargas was dispensed at 7pm, people were still arriving in their thousands. Not only the main square and the road directly in front of the parliament were packed but also every sideroad – people everywhere, banners everywhere, anger everywhere. The pouring rain soaking protesters, yet their determination to stay until the vote was announced was palpable as the noisy and colourful demonstration got into full swing.
There was little of the tension between the groups that had been experienced at previous demonstrations, all of this anger was focused squarely on the parliament and the travesty that was taking place inside. At 7pm the first major round of teargas was released from the top left corner of the parliament. As people – mainly Syriza supporters – ran from to escape the stinging cloud of gas, they ran headlong into the PAME (communist party union) block, who quickly distributed mallox to those worst affected by the violence. In the meantime, the braver of the protesters, dressed in gasmasks and googles moved forward to challenge the police throwing petrol bombs to stop them advancing on the assembled crowd.
People gradually moved into the main square of Syntagma, but as those challenging the police were overcome, suddenly they let forth an immense amount of teargas into the area and charged at those at the bottom left of the square The entire square covered in fog, people moved as quickly as they could to one of the nearest exits, either to the bottom right, where tens of thousands of people could only watch helplessly as police moved in to violently move on any who had stood their ground. The other main exit from the square was at the middle right. Here police were facing a major challenge as petrol bombs were thrown at them, thousands of people, blinded by the teargas and clinging on to strangers shoulders were streaming from the main square careful to avoid the police batons, and hopeful that no further chemical weapons would be used before they were able to recover.
People had been pushed down each and every one of the sideroads surrounding the square, while ongoing challenges to both the left and right of the parliament saw substantial property damage, with a Costa Coffee shop ablaze and lumps removed from the marble steps of some of the poshest hotels in the whole of Athens to be used as missiles against the advancing police. Clashes were taking place not only in the sideroads of the square which was now occupied by fully armoured police who made threatening gestures towards anyone who made to enter, but also down sideroads as police attempted to chase away the peaceful demonstrators who wished to continue to make their feelings known.
Inside the parliament, the proceedings were no more legitimate. With both New Democracy and PASOK determined to push this bill through whatever the cost, they had already announced that they would expell any of their MPs who dared not to follow the party line and support the bill. In the event 6 PASOK MPs, and 1 New Democracy MP, either abstained or voted against, and true to their word all were expelled within minutes of the vote being taken. There was also one rebellion from the Democratic Left party – part of the ruling coalition, it had already announced that it would abstain from the bill, however one of its members joined those in opposition to vote no. The bill was passed by a whisker – with only 153 votes in support – barely a majority in the 300 strong parliament. The expulsions from PASOK see the once mighty party which formed the last government reduced to just 26 seats, barely above the 20 held by the marginal “Independent Greeks” party.
This is no way to run a country – shoving through unconstitutional measures on the back of threats and teargas. Athens is now on its third day of strike action, yesterday the metro, the electric railway, the tram service, taxi drivers, railways services and buses were all on strike, resuming only later in the day to enable those who wished to join the protests to do so, despite police ordering the closure of the four metro stations closest to the rally point. Pharmacies were closed, hospitals were open for emergencies only, engineers, lawyers, bank officials, administrative workers, teachers, lecturers and the staff of the postal service were all out on strike, while journalists and air traffic controllers staged partial strikes in support. The country is grinding to a halt.
As the emergency negotiations with the parliamentary staff demonstrate, the Greek state is rapidly financing only that which will enable it to function and push through its deeply unpopular measures which are causing misery for the population. The main growth industry in Greece at the moment is the police, as more are recruited to bolster their ranks to protect the state from its people, and its associated entities – private security guards and police informers.
Although marble is a very strong substance, hit hard enough it smashes to smithereens; similarly although the Greek state is using everything that it can to appear strong in the face of mass popular opposition, its support is weak and the government is brittle. On the contrary, the opposition is gradually solidifying and binding, showing a determination to fight together which has been absent in recent times, for their parliament is a sham, their state openly using its power to suppress them and use them as cash cows to fill the coffers of those who created the mess.