Hundreds of thousands of people crammed into central Athens’ Syntagma Square last night, Friday, for the official no campaign’s rally ahead of Sunday’s austerity referendum.
It will decide whether to reject or accept the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) proposed deal on Greece’s debt.
The polls are nail-bitingly close–but the difference on the streets was enormous.
It was the biggest turnout of any protest since at least 2012. A crowd almost too dense to move in filled the square and surrounding streets and spilled over onto bus stop and kiosk roofs and balconies of surrounding buildings.
Student John told Socialist Worker, “We don’t want any more austerity–we want jobs and a future for our children.
“This is an act of real democracy. The people should get to decide, instead of getting things forced on us.”
Left wing prime minister Alexis Tsipras topped the bill of speakers and musicians. But the people present went well beyond his party Syriza.
Chris who’s unemployed is a member of the Pirate Party. She told Socialist Worker, “Five years of austerity have caused 10,000 suicides. Do we want to make that 20,000 with another five years?
“Whatever happens, we’re standing up for our prime minister.”
Pensioner Vaso added, “I’m here to encourage Tsipras to do what he needs to.”
The no rally and the much smaller yes rally both put forward radically different visions of Europe.
Left wing politicians and activists from across the EU came to Syntagma to lend solidarity.
To loud cheers, a speaker from the German protest movement Blockupy talked about domestic opposition to German chancellor Angela Merkel. He said, “For every Greek brave enough to take to the streets there are ten Europeans elsewhere watching and taking courage.
“Merkel doesn’t rule Europe–it is our Europe.”
Minister of administrative reform Giorgos Katrougalos told Socialist Worker, “What’s happening here isn’t just a question for Greece. We’re putting forward a different vision of Europe against the neoliberal austerity.
“This demonstration is a picture of Europe’s future.”
Many demonstrators shared this hope of reforming the EU. Council worker Christos Efthimiou was giving out leaflets from his union, which is calling for a no vote. He explained, “We’ve had cuts of about 60 percent. That means services closing, workers being laid off and wages going down. More cuts would destroy public services.
“If we vote no the EU will get the message–we want a people’s Europe.”
But for leading Syriza left winger Stathis Kouvelakis the insistence on staying in the eurozone and EU is a weakness for the government.
He told Socialist Worker, “If the banks hadn’t closed, it would have been much easier for the no campaign. It has given credibility to the other side’s apocalyptic propaganda.
“This is something that has been used to blackmail Syriza all along–and it looks as if that blackmail will continue.
“But we have to ask the question what we can do about it–and we need to seriously consider the possibility of setting up a new drachma currency.”
The yes rally–a tenth of the size at most–took place a few blocks away.
“They all want to take us out of Europe–especially the government.”
Student Ioanna came with her father. She said, “We are European, we need Europe. That means we need to accept the position we are in–we can’t get anything better.”
Europe’s mainstream media were there. One Portuguese journalist confided to Socialist Worker, “It would actually be better for us if they voted no. But I can’t really say that here.”
Apart from the size, the most striking difference was the fashion.
Designer shirts or handbags were the rule at the yes rally–but Nicolas bucked the trend with a T-shirt from St Tropez Marina. He said, “The problem in Greece is that politicians eat money, but now they have to give it back.
“I agree with the TV journalist who said the agreement isn’t good–it’s like jumping from a window on the first floor and breaking your leg.
“But no agreement is like diving from the top and being killed–so I will vote for the broken leg.”
That gloom set the tone for the rally. Bored vendors stood with carts full of unsold Greek and EU flags, brought for a turnout that hadn’t materialised.
At a previous rally, a photographer captured a well-heeled man swilling fine wine. Social media exploded in mockery.
On another, undercover no campaigners tricked them into holding up a banner that replaced their slogan “We stay in Europe” with “We stay in slavery”.
To avoid further embarrassment, they stood sullenly and listened to hectoring speeches. Meanwhile back in Syntagma, a mighty applause went up for Tsipras followed by roars of “No! No!”.
The referendum isn’t won yet. The yes campaign has the power of the ruling class behind it–and it is shamelessly using it.
The news after the rally brought the chilling threat of a “haircut” on bank accounts, which would rob ordinary people of all their savings above 8,000 euros.
But the collective defiance of the mass rally electrified the atmosphere on Athens’ streets for hours afterwards.
It was a huge boost to the working class confidence that Greece and Europe’s rulers are trying to stamp out.
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