More austerity brings Greece to a stoppage

More austerity brings Greece to a stoppage

Last Saturday morning, a polite, young Greek policeman was standing next to a young male tourist in the Syntagma Square in the center of Athens. He was holding a pack of leaflets in his hand and gave one to the tourist. Under the scorching sun he was trying to explain that he was one of the several thousand local authority employees who may lose their jobs if a multiple reform bill passes through the Parliament this week.

“We are from the municipal police of Athens. We are going to be sacked. The government will pass a bill next week and our department will be dissolved. We are on strike. You have nothing to fear. We just wanted to inform you.”

The tourist, also in his early 20s, was very understanding: “That is OK. Good luck with your strike. I hope you win back your jobs.”

The scene was reproduced several times by most news bulletins in the Greek TV over the weekend as thousands of workers employed by municipal authorities under different capacities all over Greece are expected to be laid off if the bill passes through the Greek Parliament next Thursday.

The announcement that the government will try to pass the bill came suddenly last week. The reaction was swift. All mayors came together and condemned the bill. Two mayors resigned, calling the rest to do the same. As of last Saturday, all employed by the local authorities have stopped working, and a 24-hour general strike is planned for tomorrow, on the eve of the debate in the Greek Parliament. Until then, all services offered by local authorities will be suspended and the collection of garbage will be done by a skeleton staff service. The government has a five-seat majority in the 300-member Parliament and deputies are under pressure from their constituencies.

Even if the bill goes through, the situation is explosive. The new two-party coalition government – which interestingly enough has not asked for a vote of confidence yet and has not presented its program, argues that if it does not get the bill through the Parliament, it will not receive the next tranche of the bailout money from its creditors.

I just returned from Athens after an absence of almost a year. This time I felt the huge difference between “reported reality” and “physical reality.” Things are much worse than I was told. On my small street in one of Athens suburbs, where most neighbors lived in their own houses for the last 50 years, almost everybody has been affected badly by the crisis: my older relatives saw their pensions collapse to almost half in three years, my younger relatives either lost their jobs as professionals or had to work for several jobs in order to keep up with an avalanche of taxes. The latest figures published last week showed a new increase in the unemployment rate to 26.9 percent with 700 to 1,000 people losing their jobs each day. Economists are warning that a constantly increasing funding gap cannot be filled even by the most ruthless austerity measures.

On the political level, the picture is confusing. The new Samaras-Venizelos government –former archenemies and now partners of “national responsibility – will struggle to prevent a simmering public revolt against more austerity bills. What have saved them so far are the fuzzy messages from the official opposition party of SYRIZA, a coalition of radical leftists groups who in their first “founding” congress last week dwelled mostly on whether they should be transformed into a single party under one leader or remain a collective voice. Alternative proposals for an exit to the crisis were neither specific nor loud enough.

It is not surprising that an increasing part of a frustrated electorate is finding solace in the hypnotizing rhetoric of the Neo-Nazis of the party of Golden Dawn, which is third in opinion polls.

It is to this country that German Economy Minister W. Schaeuble will pay an official visit this week for talks with the government. A Greek daily welcomed him already with a front page headline in German: “Herr Schäuble, bringen Sie das gestohlene zurück!” or “Bring back the stolen goods,” referring to the plundering of Greece during the Nazi occupation during World War II.