SPECIAL DISPATCH FROM ATHENS BY KEVIN OVENDEN
The streets of Athens are calm tonight. The political atmosphere, intense.
I joined a patient queue in the Galatsi area to withdraw a few euros from the ATM. We smiled and chatted. Not a big debate about the referendum due on Sunday over the demands by the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank – the infamous Troika – for the continuation of the austerity measures which have bled the country dry.
But as the machine took significantly longer to process transactions, most people expressed some indignation at the Troika. How will they vote? That remains to be seen, determined by the clash of political and social forces here.
Monday brought around 25,000 to a rally in Syntagma (Constitution) Square outside the parliament to launch the campaign for a No to the Troika’s blackmail. About that number were there on a very wet Tuesday evening for the Yes campaign.
They were noticeably wealthier than the forces of the Left and social movements two days earlier. And they were mobilised by the parties of austerity, which were defeated soundly in the general election in January, which brought the radical Left Syriza party to government.
Tuesday is in folklore an unlucky day in Greece. The Right and the wealthy classes are not relying on luck in the run-up to Sunday.
They are relying on the whole of the European business class, its media and political instruments – of the centre-right and centre-left – to try to put an end to the experiment in democracy and seeking alternatives to neoliberal capitalism in Greece.
Today (Wednesday) the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras wrote to the masters of the country’s tormentors – the Troika and finance ministers of the countries in the Eurozone single currency area – accepting the substance of demands they had made on Friday of last week, but havering over the timetable for their implementation (not a trivial matter) and asking for debt relief in return.
The German government of Angela Merkel has been the most adamant in opposing debt relief, or at least putting it off until further austerity measures are well implemented.
Tsprias indicated that he might call off the referendum if formal negotiations could be re-established. Whatever the motivation for that tactical offer, there was some confusion in popular Greece and among government supporters. The big business media did its best to amplify the confusion.
Angela Merkel, speaking in the German parliament, clarified matters. She dismissed the offer out of hand and said there was “no point” in talks until after Sunday’s referendum.
In a televised address to the Greek nation, Tsipras responded by saying the referendum is going ahead; the government is seeking a no vote; but that he was “ready to move” should there be any progress back towards negotiations.
I joined No campaigners in America Square in the Kipseli neighbourhood of Athens. An exchange between Sotiris, a campaigner, and Marina, who had just done her grocery shopping:
Marina: “We can’t live with more austerity. I’m glad the government stood up. But what will happen if we say no? The banks are shut now. Will they stay shut?”
Sotiris: “No. The banks will open. If we vote no it will increase the pressure on the Troika. We will show them that we will not be blackmailed.”
Marina: “But what if there is no deal. We will have to leave the euro. Voting no means no to the euro, right?”
Sotiris: “Well – I am in favour of leaving the euro. And more and more people are. They’ve shown they won’t allow democracy and a fair economic policy in the euro. We should say no to the debt and leave the euro. But look. Many things can happen. Do you trust the people who put us in this mess when they say they know what will happen? The old lot who lost power in January.
“Here’s what we do know. If we say yes to the blackmail, the blackmailers will come for more. If we say no, we have a chance to end the hardship we are all going through.”
Marina has to hurry home. The conversation not concluded. But she is reading the leaflet intently as she boards the Number 14 bus, which like all public transport is free – at least until Monday.
I head off to a public meeting of the no campaign and meet an old friend, Sylvia. She’s a hospital doctor:
“Most of the doctors at work are voting yes,” she says, “No surprise there. But most of the nurses, the porters and the other staff are voting no. And there are more of them than the doctors.
“I’m spending time with them to try to convince those who have doubts and win over those influenced by the yes propaganda – which is massive, it’s in all the papers and news channels, except those of the radical Left.”
The forces leading the yes campaign are from Greece’s business class and from the twin pro-capitalist parties that ruled Greece for the 40 years since the end of the Colonels’ dictatorship in 1974 until Syriza’s victory this year.
The backbone of the campaign is among the professional classes – doctors, lawyers, managers and so on. That is despite the fact that the austerity demanded by the Eurozone has ruined some of them and hit a lot.
Listening to them it is as if “Europe” were a religious idea. It is a symbol of their standing, which they are losing in the austerity years but feel all the more passionately in looking down on the countries to the Greece’s east and on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
Many of the yes campaign’s brochures and online propaganda contain barely coded racism about the country descending to the level of “Pakistan or Bangladesh” if it leaves the euro. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are among the newcomers to Greece who have been subjected to violent, murderous attacks by the fascist party Golden Dawn. But the fascists are trying to pretend that they are radical friends of the common people. So they are cynically saying they are for a no.
The people driving racism and xenophobia in this campaign are the old parties of social democracy and the centre. Going along with it are the self styled liberals of a new party, built up in the media but not in membership, called To Potami, the River.
The political clash of the last five years, resting upon resistance by working class people and the popular strata in Greece, is palpably intensifying these days. Much of the international media is grasping the drama of the summit meetings and the, sometimes confusing, tactics of the government as it both tries to stay in the euro and negotiate a deal with the Troika.
The clash in Greek society, however, gets less attention. But it is the resistance by popular social forces, in which the radical Left is enmeshed, which stopped the government from feeling forced to accept a humiliating deal last week.
Now – through the yes campaign – the Right and its allies in the so-called centre are seeking to make a comeback. They are up to all manner of manoeuvres, with the support of European elites and their agencies, either to nullify the referendum or to scare people into a yes vote.
The European Central Bank today announced it will not extend the overdraft to Greece’s banking system until after the referendum. It is sending a political message that it has control and is prepared to use it to undermine the government and the popular mandate, if the No wins on Sunday.
“The bank workers are in unions, but the radical Left is not strong there,” says one veteran of the radical Left. “That’s a problem. It won’t be solved tomorrow, but it has to be addressed from today if we are to move in the future to nationalising the banks. That’s necessary if we are to stop the financial terrorism of the Troika and its friends in Greece.”
The forces which want to bury the election outcome in January are regrouping through the yes campaign. They may be using a democratic mechanism, but their methods go beyond it.
Nasos works in the state broadcaster ERT. It was closed two years ago under the last government. Most workers resisted and there was a two-year work-in, which developed collaborative new ways of organising and broadcasting.
The main studios in Athens were, however, seized by the police acting for the government and a new, smaller broadcaster was established. Its management were of the old order and for the austerity memorandums. The workers who were taken on by it were drawn largely into the same political camp and had not joined the collective action of the majority.
“As you know, we went back to work after the Syriza government re-opened ERT,” Nasos told a meeting organising for the no campaign.
“We still had outstanding issues and want the government to go further to meet them.
“This week we really felt at work the attempts by the old management, the one which stayed on two years ago, and by the pro-memorandum forces to organise.
“For the first time since we went back they felt confident to argue. Quite aggressive. You could feel it. Lots of us in ERT voted Syriza. The to-ing and fro-ing, particularly yesterday, led to quite a lot of my workmates feeling a bit paralysed. Too quiet when the Right and management were being provocative.
“So it was really important that a few of us started hitting back hard. That encouraged others and people were stronger today. We don’t know what will happen on Sunday.
“But it will decide on Monday who feels they have the upper hand at ERT. A lot is at stake. It won’t end on Sunday. But Sunday really matters.”