Reform Fatigue Saps Greek Appetite for Protest

Greek trade unionists dutifully turned out for a one-day general strike on Wednesday but the chanting of anti-austerity slogans outside parliament lacked the defiance of a year ago.

Riot policemen push back demonstrators as they try to approach the finance ministry in Athens.
Louisa Gouliamaki | AFP | Getty Images
Riot policemen push back demonstrators as they try to approach the finance ministry in Athens.

Only about 15,000 people – half the number expected – took part in what was billed as a last-ditch protest against a fresh austerity package that could bring a possible hiring freeze or even job losses for public sector workers.

Even the scuffles that broke out between riot police and self-styled anarchist groups taking part in the march were less violent than in past such protests, observers said.

“The police fired plenty of teargas but there wasn’t much drama... I didn’t feel I had to pull the shutters down like before,” said Haris, a shop-owner who witnessed Wednesday’s clashes.

Five months of violent anti-austerity protests ended abruptly last year after three bank employees died in an arson attack, just before parliament approved Greece’s bail-out agreement with the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Enthusiasm for protesting has faded as reform fatigue sets in.

Average salaries fell by around 10 percent in 2010, according to the labour ministry. Jobs in the grey economy are disappearing as recession continues and middle-class households are being squeezed.

“We used to protest because it worked ... Governments backed off from unpopular policies – for example, changes in pensions or in university education,” said Amalia Simopoulou, a leftwing former activist. “But you can’t take on the whole eurozone and the IMF.”

The mood of uncertainty and even fear is fuelled by doomsters’ predictions of a lost decade as Greece struggles to avoid a debt restructuring amid successive rounds of cost-cutting and increases in indirect taxes.

Business and consumer confidence has fallen sharply over the past two months as discussion intensified on a new EU bail-out programme, according to the Athens think-tank Iobe.

Angelos Tsakanikas, Iobe’s head of research, said: “The small firms that make up the bulk of Greek business and consumers were more confident at the beginning of the year but now they don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Greeks were largely unprepared for the borrowing crisis that erupted in late 2009 after a state-spending bubble collapsed and the economy moved into recession.

The crisis exposed deep-rooted structural problems following a decade of strong growth that saw salaries double and the country overtake Portugal for the first time in terms of per capita income.

A third year of recession is adding to social tension, said Theodore Pelagides, an economics professor at Piraeus University.

“People are frightened of losing the standard of living they achieved over the previous years...?But they don’t see any alternative to the troika at the moment... So the appetite for protest has declined,” Prof Pelagides said.

Even usually militant trade unionists are starting to lose their sense of entitlement as reforms of the public sector corporations loom closer, analysts said. Salaries at state utilities were capped last year, and cuts in allowances that can add more than 60 percent to monthly salaries will be made under the EU-IMF programme .

The leaders of GSEE and ADEDY, the umbrella unions for public corporations and civil servants respectively, have to tread more carefully than previously or risk endangering their close relationship with the governing socialists.

“Union leaders in the past made a seamless transition to the socialist ranks in parliament, and the current leaders too have political ambitions,” said a former socialist deputy. “If the government commits to the next round of austerity in order to ‘save the nation’, the unions are likely to fall into line.”