Last Saturday and Sunday, Giansandro Merli of European Alternatives, DINAMOpress.it and AteneCalling.org, was in Athens to follow the vicissitudes linked with the Greek referendum. It was an historical turning point for the future of the whole of Europe and a step towards the building of transnational relations and common political perspectives from below.
There are places in the world that history likes to visit. The Athens of the crisis is one of these places. And the Greek referendum has probably been among the most important historical moments of the last years. I had this feeling in the last days and so I decided not to miss the opportunity to experience it for myself.
I arrived in the city on Saturday morning, a few hours after the YES and NO square demonstrations, and a few hours before the vote. As always, Athens immediately offered me some surprises, in the form of little changes with big meanings. Such as the message on the metro ticket machines that said: “Public transportation is free until further notice”. Or the crowds hanging around the Periptera [little kiosks], reading the first and last pages of the newspapers. And the lively discussions between NAI (yes) and OXI (no) everywhere. And the tens of languages that could be heard in the city center: people who, despite the weather, were not speaking about holidays and islands, but whether Europe has a future or not.
Talking at length with the supporters of the NO-vote, I retraced the changes of mood of the last week. They told me about the certainty of winning right after the announcement of the referendum. About the overturning of the forecast, when the banks closed. And about the important events of the last three days that gave hope again. First, the touching OXI square of Friday, probably crowded as never before. And, moreover, several little positive signs that were appearing here and there. The funniest and most meaningful were the little revolts of the people in line at the ATM against the journalists who went there expecting to find YES supporters.
However, on Saturday, the tension was very high, and nobody could be sure of the final result. I was in the district of Exarcheia with Greek and transnational activists, above all Germans from the Blockupy organizations. Exarcheia is a famous area of Athens, known for its leftist and anarchist tradition, and in the recent years for the riots that often took place there. Being with activists from several European countries underscored how widespread an awareness there is that a national referendum of a small country could change the life and future of all Europeans. On Friday, the tens of demonstrations that took place across Europe showed publicly the growing awareness of being not just on the same continent, but in the same boat.
On Sunday the atmosphere of the city was that of a nervous wait. During the morning, the streets were crowded with people going to vote, or still discussing about what to do. While in the afternoon, due also to the heat, it seemed that everybody had gone back home, to stop and wait for 7 p.m. Around 8.30 p.m., the first results started to arrive. I was following the news coverage in Exarcheia, and the mood became better and better as the percentage of the counted votes increased. When they were around 20% of the total, people around me began to relax and smile. Things were going better than any expectations.
With 30% of votes counted, the party started. A spontaneous demonstration moved towards Klafthmonos, the square where the people of SYRIZA were awaiting the results. As the demo passed through the streets, people joined it, sang, raised their fists and shouted OXI. It seemed that a pall of fear had suddenly disappeared, and even if everybody knew that very difficult days were to come, a sense of pride and dignity was triumphing. In Klafthmonos, hundreds of people danced and sang “Bella Ciao”, songs of the Greek resistance and others about Allende. People cried, kissed and hugged.
A second spontaneous demo marched from that square to Syntagma. There, the people were in the thousands. Greek and red flags fluttered everywhere. There was a speaker’s corner and many people wanted to share their opinion. You could hear English spoken in different accents, people thanking the “brave Greeks”, or accusing the Troika and the pro-austerity front. Even though there was no speech by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, as it normal with an electoral victory, people continued to arrive and fill Syntagma square until very late. Each wanted to participate in this historic event.
After some hours of celebration, I returned to Exarcheia with the transnational activists. There, we found some barricades on fire, the smell of tear gas, and MALT and DELTA units patrolling the perimeter of the district. It seemed that even the anarchists were celebrating in their own way.
To conclude with some reflections, we can say that the referendum has been a vote against fear: against the fear instigated by the media, against the fear produced by the closure of the banks, against the fear of the threats that came from the most powerful people in the world. The Greeks showed a dignity beyond any expectations. It was not easy to go and vote NO in the current climate. But it happened, and with a margin greater than even the most optimistic forecasts. Millions of people decided that it is better to take a leap of faith and risk losing everything, than to continue with austerity policies. This is a message directed at the whole of Europe, which now must take into consideration this fundamental result.
On Sunday, politics and democracy returned to the European space, after they had been expelled for a long time by market needs and “technical” solutions. And they came back directly on a European level: the debate about the vote was European probably as never before, the demonstrations, the discussions and the international solidarity involved not just among the activists, but regular Greeks. The Greek referendum showed that there is a transnational movement that refuses this Europe of the Troika and austerity, and wants to build a Europe of solidarity and rights.
We are just beginning.
di Giansandro Merli
* Thanks to DINAMOpress for the picture.