It's Time for Tsipras to Go

January 21, 2016

In News

‘We will come to Athens and burn them’: political protest returns to Greece

Troubled country faces further hardship as public and private sectors take to the streets to protest against impact of austerity

Farmers’ roadblocks, ferries immobilised in ports, pensioners taking to the streets: protest has returned to Greece in what many fear could be the beginning of the crisis-plagued country’s most confrontational winter yet.

From the Greek-Bulgarian frontier to the southern island of Crete, farmers are up in arms over the spectre of more internationally mandated austerity.

“It’s war,” says Dimitris Vergos, a corn grower speaking from the northern town of Naoussa. “If they [politicians] go on pushing us to the edge, if they want to dehumanise us further, we will come to Athens and burn them all.”

With the rhetoric at such levels, prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s leftist-led administration has suddenly found itself on the defensive. Faced with a series of demonstrations – fishermen and stockbreeders will join blockades on Thursday when public and private sector workers also take to the streets – analysts say any honeymoon period Tsipras may once have enjoyed is over.

On Wednesday, convoys of tractors in Thessaly, the nation’s breadbasket, blocked the road at Tempi, effectively cutting the country’s main north-south highway. Hundreds more lined the seafront in Thessaloniki while, further north, police were forced to fire rounds of tear gas at protestors barricading Evangelos Apostolou, the agriculture minister, in an administrative building as fierce clashes erupted in Komotini.

Their fury is focused on proposed pension and tax measures, the latest in a battery of reforms set as the price of the debt-stricken nation receiving a third, €86bn, bailout last summer.

Prime minister Alexis Tsipras
Prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s administration is on the defensive. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

For farmers, the draft policies are tantamount to the kiss of death. “We are going for all out confrontation,” said the prominent unionist Yannis Vangos, warning that by Friday roadblocks would be erected across a large swath of the county. “It seems we can’t see eye to eye at all. Things are out of control. It’s not just one thing we have to negotiate.”

Six years into Athens’ economic crisis, even more Greeks claim they have been pushed to the point where they can no longer survive the rigours of austerity. With an unprecedented 1.2 million people unemployed – more than 25% of the population – many have been pauperised by the biting effects of keeping bankruptcy at bay.

Pensioners, whose incomes have been reduced 12 times at the behest the EU and International Monetary Zone, this week also upped the ante taking to the streets.

Creditors argue that at 17% of GDP, Greece’s pension system is Europe’s costliest and to great degree the generator of its fiscal dysfunction. But those who stand to be affected by the overhaul counter the changes go too far.

For farmers, the reforms will not only raise social security contributions from 6.5% to 27%, but double income tax payments from 13% to 26%, eradicating more than three quarters of their annual earnings.

“There are some I know who are forced to live on pensions of €360 (£275) a month,” says Vergos. He was among hundreds of farmers and stockbreeders who attempted to storm the Greek parliament upon hearing of the proposed plans in November. “It is as if with these latest measures they want us to give up.”

The 35-year-old added that he was already struggling to raise his three children because of cuts in benefits. “And to think I voted for Tsipras and his [Syriza] party,” he lamented. “To think I thought they were our big hope. Now I don’t want to see them in front of me.”

The unrest has illuminated Syriza’s abrupt slide in popularity. Polls conducted in the wake of the election, barely 10 days ago, of the reform-minded former banker, Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the helm of New Democracy, have put the centre-right main opposition party ahead by as much as four percentage points.

Greek pensioners rally in Athens
Greek pensioners rally in Athens on Tuesday, against a planned overhaul of the country’s pension system. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a year to the day after they assumed power, sending tremors through Europe’s conservative establishment, the once unyielding anti-austerity leftists have come up against what every government has confronted since the onset of Greece’s great economic meltdown: the difficulty of placating the bodies keeping the country afloat while avoiding the political cost of doing so.

The truce that prevailed as politicians rallied to avert Athens being ejected from the eurozone – with pro-European opposition parties supporting the unpopular rescue package after seeing banks closed and capital controls imposed – has evaporated with Mitsotakis’ appearance centre state.

In an atmosphere of renewed political polarisation, marked by a combative first meeting between Tsipras and Mitsotakis on Tuesday, uncertainty has returned to the political scene.

The leftists, in power with the small rightwing Independent Greeks party, have already seen their majority whittled down to a mere three in the 300-seat House. Passage of reforms so ideologically at variance with MPs already reluctantly endorsing them is far from assured.

The government has been put on the back foot as criticism has also mounted over revelations of Syriza executives hiring relatives and friends against its own pledge to do away with cronyism in the bloated public sector.

“Politically, Tsipras is cornered and the big question is how will he react?” said the political analyst Pandelis Kapsis. “The situation is very unstable and he has a record of unpredictability. He may call early elections or even another referendum.”

With unions announcing a general strike on 4 February, the prospect of social upheaval has reignited concerns over Greece’s ability to remain in the single currency. Amid fears that lenders, led by the hardline International Monetary Fund (IMF), will ask for further retrenchment – following discovery of a €1.8bn fiscal gap in the budget this year – an iteration of the Grexit crisis cannot be ruled out. Negotiations between Athens and its creditors begin in the coming days.

As the protests intensified, Tsipras flew to Switzerland on Wednesday to attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

In meetings lined up with Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi, the heads of the IMF and European Central Bank, he is expected to appeal for flexibility. Officials said he would press upon interlocutors that time is now of the essence if Athens is to complete the reforms and a review of the economy, open up debt relief talks and avoid the drama that pushed it to the brink of eurozone exit in 2015.