After such a momentous day for Greece, it’s difficult to know where to begin in terms of analysing events in Parliament and on the streets outside it.
Given that the world’s attention was focussed on how a handful of PASOK MPs would cast their ballot in the vote on the government’s midterm fiscal plan, it was always going to take something “special” to trump this story. Enter the Greek riot police and the usual bunch of thrill-seekers and hooligans. They never disappoint.
Their running battles through central Athens constituted the worst violence that Greece has seen in over a year and only added to the impression that this country is about to implode. The younger self-styled anarchists and older street warriors reliving past glories could not pass up an opportunity to get their concealed faces on every major news bulletin around the world.
They were ably assisted in their task by the overzealous efforts of the riot police, who decided that causing mayhem was the best way to contain the small element of troublemakers amid a larger crowd of protesters who wanted to voice their grievances forcefully but peacefully. The amount of tear gas and indiscriminate force used by the police seemed excessive. When Amnesty International issues a statement expressing concern about the liberal use of chemicals and force, it’s a pretty clear sign that you have stepped over the line.
Witnesses were adamant that officers’ heavy-handedness, presumably on orders from above, exacerbated the situation. The decision to pursue protesters through the narrow streets of Monastiraki, driving fear into tourists trying to escape the chaos was absurd. Alleged attacks on volunteer doctors at a first aid station are deplorable. A video apparently showing riot police shielding several shaven-headed, iron-bar wielding men was provocative.
Why someone in the government, like Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis, or in the upper ranks of the police force would encourage or permit behaviour that put citizens’ safety at risk while also wreaking further damage to Greece’s already tarnished image is a mystery that’s lost somewhere in the fug of tear gas in Syntagma Square.
One of the most apt comments heard during Wednesday was that the smell in Athens was not that of chemicals but of an era coming to its end. There is little doubt that what we are witnessing now are the death throes of a failed political, economy and social system. The rioting was a stark reminder of this but the real messages were to be found in the parliament building, not outside.
MPs were essentially asked to plunge the dagger into the Greece of the last four decades by approving austerity measures that are designed to change the public sector beyond recognition so it’s no longer a depository for many of the country’s worst excesses. The deputies also rang the “last orders” bell for Greece’s middle class, which has enjoyed unparalleled prosperity since the 1980s. But now, Greeks’ purchasing power has dropped to the same level as 2002 and the new measures will lead to so much belt-tightening that you are likely to hear bones cracking.
Kicking and screaming and under great duress, Greece has voted to at least try to part with its past. This is the bigger picture from Wednesday’s events. Few in Parliament could come up with convincing arguments for sticking with the status quo. Even the midterm fiscal package’s greatest critic, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras only had lower taxation to offer up as an alternative. He offered no resistance to the cuts that signal a fundamental change of philosophy for Greek politics and a shift in the ideology of the state. No longer can the public sector be the land of plenty; it has to become a small, well-tended field to feed a self-sufficient family.
Of course, much will depend whether this government, or the one that succeeds it, will be able to see these measures through to their conclusion. There can be no certainty of that when Greece is in such an economic and political flux and there are such grave doubts about whether more austerity is the answer to the country’s problems. The wheels were set in motion on Wednesday but we don’t know exactly where we are heading.
And, as one last observation about this troubling and tense day, it was interesting to note that Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos became the government figurehead as the evening went on. As concern grew about the violence in Syntagma, it was Venizelos who stood up in Parliament to give the government’s interpretation of what was going on. It was also Venizelos who negotiated with Papoutsis the safe passage of volunteer medics to treat injured protesters. Prime Minister George Papandreou was nowhere to be seen and Venizelos wrote himself into the role in the premier’s absence. But maybe on a day when the spirits of the past were choking on the tear gas in the air, it was no surprise that a man called Papandreou slipped unnoticed into the shadows.