Over the past weekend, Greek farmers and others held a massive, (mostly) non violent flag waving, anti-tax, anti-price control, anti-pension payout cuts, protest in Athens.
Tens of thousands of farmers from all over Greece traveled to Athens to rally in front of the parliament with other organisations against social security and other pension tax hikes, government pensions payout cuts, and other big government measures that threaten their wellbeing. Many of the protestors came to Athens with their tractors, which has become a symbol of the protests. Most of the tractors were stopped outside the city, but police allowed 20 tractors to go to Syntagma Square, where the farmers rallied outside the parliament building.
In August 2015, the Marxist Syriza government negotiated a deal with its lenders (the European Union, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc.) to get more in money loans in return for reforms. The details were largely withheld from the public.
Currently it seems that the government is reluctant to share the relevant data with its lenders to confirm that the August negotiations are being implemented and yielding the expected results to secure the much needed next loan instalment. It has become apparent that the Greek government is late in implementing the agreed upon measures fearing the public’s opposition to the measures, since it promised to do the opposite prior to the last elections. Some analysts believe that Syriza made those false promises knowingly. They are also starting to hint at the possibility of incompetence of certain government officials or worse, using delay tactics because it, as a leftist government with leftist ideologies, does not believe in the “capitalist” program they negotiated with its “capitalist” creditors. As a result the country is falling deeper into recession, requiring additional harsh measures to meet its loan commitment.
The Syriza government has found itself in between a rock and a hard place. No doubt the previous conservative and socialist governments share in the responsibility of the current situation, but the primary responsibility for today’s crisis lies with the current government.
Now, with the proposed terms exposed, lawyers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, shop owners, civil servants and others have joined the farmer’s protests against the government proposals.
They all claim that if the new measures being negotiated by this government with its lenders are voted in by parliament (Syriza holds a narrow 153 majority vs 147 minority, all against) the government will take approximately 80 per cent of their income. The increase will come from raising social security, unemployment, health, etc. (pension) contributions while lowering benefits and payouts, raising income tax, property tax, and for the farmers, also increasing operating costs such as elimination of their current fuel tax exemption.
Around 70 per cent of the farmers voted for the current government in the last two elections.
Now parliamentary members are not going to their own constituencies, fearing the backlash of voters. In the few cases that they have, they have been shouted down and confronted and asked not to vote for the measures, or to resign.
The opposition political parties, farmers, etc. are asking the government to withdraw their proposal and begin negotiations at a “Zero Basis”. This is difficult to do in light of simultaneous negotiations going on with its creditors to ensure compliance with the agreement signed by the government last summer as stated above. It is important to note that an overwhelming parliamentary majority voted (220 votes) for the program to avoid default and expulsion from the common European Economic Community but not for the specific measures to achieve goals.
Amongst the massive protests there is remarkably little violence by recent Greek standards. A police car windshield was smashed and some damage was done to the agriculture ministry, but there were no serious injuries. There has been no reported violence at the main protest at Syntagma Square. Syriza government ministers are claiming that the protests are being directed by fascist extremists, but, other than catching one Golden Dawn supporter, they have offered no proof. The state media companies are trying, unsuccessfully, to bury the story.
Opposition parties, led by New Democracy (ND) leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, are proposing conservative solutions such as decreasing the size of government, cutting taxes and letting free market capitalism take its course. They believe that more government and higher taxes will bring greater recession to the Greek economy. At the moment, Greece’s unemployment rate is officially around 25 per cent, but unofficially it is thought to hover around 35 per cent.
Many farmer representatives have indicated that they would like to maintain their tax, social security, health, etc. payment contributions, along with other benefits, referred to as “tools of trade”, such as tax free fuel, etc. at levels that were in effect when Syriza became government. They are essentially asking to go back to measures negotiated with the ND conservative government about two years ago, and agreed to at that time by Greece’s creditors.
Since Syriza took over, they changed the farmer’s “VAT” tax from 6 to 13 per cent and recently proposed an increase to 23 per cent, eventually rising to 26 per cent at a later date. Syriza has also proposed that working people, in addition to paying this year’s tax, pre-pay next year’s tax (basically, demanding that Greeks come up with and pay two years worth of taxes). So no wonder Greeks feel misled and lied to by Syriza and are on a constant protest demanding that they negotiate in good faith from a “Zero Basis”. But the ultimate question is, if they do, will the creditors agree and continue to lend Greece the money it needs in order for it not to default on its loans?