Tens of thousands of Greeks have gathered peacefully for nearly a week in central Athens and other cities to demand change, after a year of painful austerity measures.
Most commentators and even government ministers in this debt-crippled country known for its union-organised rallies that often degenerate into full-fledged riots are applauding the method.
Organised through social-networking sites on the internet and copying similar mass protests in financially troubled Spain, the evening rallies have attracted mostly young people, including many who are jobless in a country where the unemployment rate is nearly 16%.
“As long as the protests are peaceful, I am certain that they will have a result,” said demonstrator Giorgos Xarhas (28) an unemployed accountant. “Politicians can’t ignore us … and we want to make our voices heard.”
In the morning, volunteers clean the square and provide food and first aid services, while keeping away television crews and political extremists. At night, crowds listen as speakers air proposals ranging from support for the unemployed to writing off the country’s €360-billion debt ($514-billion). Others bang drums and sauce pans, shouting “Take your austerity measures and clear off.”
Protesters oppose the Socialist government’s cutbacks, designed to ensure continued release of the €110-billion international loan package that is keeping Greece solvent and eventually create primary budget surpluses. But many also point to the decades of corruption and misrule that brought the country to its knees, and are calling for a radical change of course.
A young woman who spent the past two nights in one of the dozens of tents pitched in central Syntagma Square, opposite Parliament said none of Greece’s political parties represent the protesters.
“We don’t want this government to fall and be replaced by another,” said Danae, who like other protesters asked only to be identified by her first name. “The whole system must change. We have gone beyond the -isms of traditional politics. However, our political counterproposal is not yet clear. We’re heading into the unknown — like Columbus. He got somewhere, and so will we.”
She said her visit to the square was out of curiosity. “I didn’t think many people would come. But the crowds just grew and grew.”
Grigoris, a 36-year-old unemployed economics graduate, said the protests brought together people of all political persuasions, who would normally have nothing in common.
“It’s really nice that people can come here with their children and feel safe,” he said.
Some have dismissed the demonstrators as apolitical and naive people who like to mix their protests with a beer and social chitchat. Deputy Prime Minister Theodore Pangalos — the target of many jeering chants outside Parliament — was typically caustic.
“The formation of a political movement, however much that may displease people who follow the trend of new technologies, does not depend on likes and unlikes on Facebook,” he said.
“Movements bereft of ideology and organisation, based on sentiment or a moment of wrath, can offer two things: either a form of painless and in the long run ineffectual release of steam, which does not even interest politics per se, or clear the way for organised minorities to undemocratically seize power.”
But most politicians have hastened to court their critics.
“The system has to change, and if such a movement can contribute to the necessary changes then we must help it,” Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said. “As long as it remains an authentic movement that is not linked with party politics, I think it’s something healthy.”
Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said the protests were “impressive”.
“There are always groups that are there for other reasons, but the overwhelming majority is … worried about their future, and that of their children,” he said. “Our society has taken a long time to start talking about a series of things that have been happening in this country for a very long time.”
Conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras weighed in too, calling in Parliament for lawmakers to “listen to” the protesters.
“They are more than indignant, they are desperate,” Samaras said. “It is our duty to give them hope and prospects.”
Others, however, warned that the approval of politicians could bode ill for the movement.
“The best way to smother a protest is to embrace it,” said novelist Petros Tatsopoulos. — Sapa-AP