Clashes erupted between police and protesters in Greece on Wednesday, as citizens took to the streets to demonstrate against fresh austerity measures. The country also was brought to a virtual halt by a general strike.
It was planned as a peaceful protest, but within hours tension had risen on the streets of Athens. In dramatic scenes near parliament, police fired tear gas at hooded demonstrators, who were throwing stones and petrol bombs.
About 50,000 people took to the streets, banging drums and shouting slogans against austerity measures they say are bringing Greek people to their knees.
It is the first major public demonstration since a new coalition government, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, was elected three months ago on a pro-euro, pro-bailout platform. Demonstrators wanted to show the new government they have had enough of the cuts.
But while the Greek government is hemmed in by public unrest on one side, on the other, international lenders that have been propping up the Greek economy since 2010, are also putting on pressure. The new cuts are needed to persuade the lenders to release $40 billion in financial aid that Greece needs to avoid defaulting on its debt.
London School of Economics lecturer Spyros Economides said it is the first real test to see if Samaras can push ahead with austerity in the face of widespread discontent.
“What happens is that if the pressure becomes immense, then there would be a call for new elections. And then those elections could potentially lead to a new government, perhaps one led by the current major opposition party, who have said quite categorically that if we come to power, we will leave the Eurozone and we will return to the [Greek] drachma, which in my opinion is the biggest possible catastrophe for Greece right now,” said Economides.
The government has a difficult path to navigate, he said, between its citizens and its lenders.
“In the last two years we have seen in Greece that there have been moments in which these very peaceful and legitimate democratic strike actions have been hijacked by a small group of people and become very violent, and that is really disturbing,” said Economides. “Then I think you will see a different kind of reaction, because then the uncertainty becomes one of not only what do these strikes mean, but could they spill over into a broader civil unrest, which could destroy the whole possibility of Greece coming out of this in a few years’ time as a normal European state.”
And that could be a worry, he said, with Wednesday’s strike only the first of many likely to take place in the coming months.