Only about 15,000 unionists and leftists turned out for a protest against Prime Minister Samaras’s austerity program in Greece’s second largest city, indicating that most of the population may be resigned to the cuts.
That’s how it appears at this stage, anyway. If there were going to be massive protests, this would have been the venue. There is a fair in Thessoloniki that traditionally has the prime minister give an economic address. If the appearance of Samaras could only generate 15,000 protestors, one wonders if the opposition can turn out the hundreds of thousands of protestors that they have in the past.
With nearly 25% unemployment and the EU/IMF inspectors in the country to examine the Samaras government’s commitment to austerity, the Greek people may simply see no rational alternative that wouldn’t involve massive social and economic upheaval — something only the far left socialists and communists would like to see.
The demonstration by about 15,000 trade unionists and leftists was the first major protest against a nearly 12-billion-euro austerity package being readied by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to appease EU and IMF inspectors who arrived in Athens on Friday to review Greece’s reform progress.
A few protesters burned European Union flags while others threw watermelons and peaches in support of struggling farmers, but the largely peaceful protests otherwise passed off without incident as 3,500 policemen looked on.
Greece is struggling through its worst post-war economic crisis that has left nearly one in four jobless, pushed up poverty levels and shuttered thousands of businesses.
In a break with tradition, Samaras made only a brief appearance to inaugurate the event and to defend the planned cuts instead of making the customary annual economic policy speech delivered by his predecessors.
“We are trying to minimise the pain from the cuts as much as possible but we have to make the cuts, because there is no other way,” Samaras told politicians and local officials.
“I am telling you the truth, there is no other way.”
Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, head of the radical leftist SYRIZA party that opposes Greece’s foreign bailout, criticised Samaras for the unusually low-key appearance at the event.
“The prime minister came and left like a thief – perhaps he is ashamed,” said Tsipras, who took part in the rallies.
Samaras opposed Greece’s first bailout in 2010 but since taking power in June he has promised to push through another round of belt-tightening that a fatigued Greek public feels it cannot take anymore.
Samaras and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, a respected economist, have won cautious praise from European counterparts for refusing to back down on the cuts but face growing hostility at home as Greece’s economic slump deepens.
With the European Central Bank assuming broad powers this week to purchase bonds from struggling governemnts, a corner may have been turned for Spain and Italy.
But not for Greece. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear that there will be no more bailouts of Greece and that they will sink or swim with the agreement reached last spring that gives Athens about $180 billion to help it through the crisis.
Samaras may not have the support of the people. But it could be that they won’t stand in his way as he implements the painful cuts that must be made if Greece is to survive in the euro zone.