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Greeks defy government ban to mark 1973 democratic uprising

Brutal repression and snatch squads failed to deter a mass turnout of protesters in Athens, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

THOUSANDS of protesters across a major European state defied massed riot police and savage repression this week ordered by a right-wing government acting wholly outside the law.

They did so to mark the historic event that ended authoritarian rule and brought parliamentary democracy to their country, and to demand investment in the health service and social measures to meet the pandemic.

It was not in Poland or Hungary. They are in the news for their hard-right governments’ theatrical standoff with the European Union over its next budget.

It was in Greece. Its conservative, pro-corporate government is regarded as a poster-child for neoliberal orthodoxy and for ousting the previous Syriza administration that originated on the radical left.

So there was no indignation in Brussels or in EU capitals. Just as there was none when the Spanish state brutalised citizens in Catalonia or the French state hospitalised hundreds of yellow-vests protesters and abrogated basic rights.

November 17 is the anniversary of the student-worker uprising in Athens in 1973 against the military dictatorship that had seized power in a Nato-backed coup in April 1967. 

It was murderously repressed but heralded the fall of the junta the following year.

Every year since then the date has been a national rallying point for all the left and truly democratic forces determined to prevent any return to authoritarian rule. 

That, and to realise the promise of social transformation that swept Greece in the 1970s but has been betrayed by one government after another.

This year, under the pretext of Covid-19, the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis sought to ban all gatherings of more than four people. 

Cheering him on were the far right and fragments of the fascists, who suffered a historic defeat last month with the conviction of the neonazi leaders of Golden Dawn.

Mitsotakis gambled on using the pandemic to do what the right has long desired: to eliminate from national life the insurgent continuity going back to 1973. He and his ministers failed.

Despite thousands of riot police deployed to prevent any gatherings in central Athens, forces of the left and labour movement were able to rally — and in other cities.

The brutal police repression gave the lie to the excuse that public health was the reason for the ban. 

Snatch squads seized people who were all wearing masks and more physically distanced than in any street market or workplace in Greece.

They threw them into vans and packed them into cells. So reckless was the state’s operation that it managed to spread Covid-19 among a police unit sent from Lamia in central Greece to Athens. It had to be sent back into isolation when one tested positive.

The blanket four-day ban announced last Saturday was entirely unconstitutional. 

It was not under the recent Act of parliament that provides for limited restrictions on public-health grounds. 

It was not under the article of the constitution that allows parliament to introduce such a ban if there is a “state of siege,” and only then with strong safeguards.

Lacking legal authority, the government did it anyway. It compounded the anti-democratic assault by getting the chief of police to announce it.

Among those denouncing the “junta-like” behaviour was the Union of Judges and Prosecutors in Greece.

Instead of isolating the left in the name, he claimed, of a silent majority of “90 per cent of the population,” Mitsotakis succeeded only in isolating his own government.

Health experts, teachers, lawyers, actors, human-rights organisations and others across civil society spoke out and protested along with the political organisations of the left and the unions.

In an unusual move, the three parliamentary parties of the left — Syriza, the Communist Party, and MERA25 (set up by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) — issued a joint statement against the ban.

That common parliamentary front reflects growing unified struggles in Greece. The huge demonstration outside the court on the day Golden Dawn was convicted was also attacked by water cannon on the order of policing minister Michalis Chrisochoidis.

Hospital workers have faced police repression and threats of prosecution for protesting for more resources and supporting the right to demonstrate. They will be at the centre of a one-day general strike later this month.

It is against a further austerity budget — though there is, as in Britain, a boost for the military — and against a new anti-union law. 

“In what way does outlawing strikes stop Covid?” asks one leader of the doctors’ union.

A glimpse of the true motivation for the ban came from the statement of the deputy mayor of Athens. 

Alexia Evert described Tuesday’s protesters as “cockroaches and rats.” The fascistic language caused uproar. 

The combined forces of the left on the city council forced the mayor to sack her.

The mayor of Athens is the nephew of the prime minister of Greece. Mitsotakis was hailed in some quarters — as Joe Biden is today — as a great liberal-moderniser who would clear out corruption and bring “good governance.”

Putting your nephew in a position of power and thus of crony enrichment is the origin of the word nepotism.

From opinion polls to phone-in shows the mass of people see this. The actual great majority — not Mitsotakis’s fantasy 90 per cent — continue to implement the personal measures that are the only ones in their hands to deal with the pandemic. 

The government, meanwhile, has squandered the gains made by the collective popular effort in spring. 

Greece is one of those countries facing a catastrophic second wave.

The late French radical sociologist Pierre Bourdieu 20 years ago observed that neoliberal capitalism does not mean the withering of the state. 

It is rather the withdrawal of its left, welfarist arm and the strengthening of its right, repressive arm.

Alongside that the redistributive power of the state is redirected to take from the many to give to the few through the kind of wholesale corruption shown most clearly in this crisis in the chumocracy practised by the Tory government in Britain.

MPs of the radical left Die Linke party made points along those lines this week when they opposed the latest coronavirus Bill in the German parliament. 

They argued that it is ineffective, lacks proper economic support for working people and substitutes authoritarian state action for building needed social solidarity.

They faced down false accusations that by doing so they were “lining up with” the Covid-denying conspiracists in Germany who have provided a fishing ground for the fascist right.

In France, the radical left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon has launched his bid for the 2022 presidential election on a platform that combines radical economic and social measures to beat the pandemic with a searing attack upon the authoritarianism of Emmanuel Macron.

That repression, cynically exploiting recent terror attacks, strikes at fundamental democratic rights in France just as much as anything done in Poland or Hungary. 

International statistics on Covid-19 and the slump have refuted the right-wing lie that there is some trade-off between public health and economic well-being.

There is also no trade-off between both of those and collective democratic rights. 

This is an issue too important to leave to a false dichotomy between failing governments and obscurantist libertarians. 

Both, at the first opportunity, unite their forces to ban popular protest from the left. 

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