|THE SURPRISES OF SYNTAGMA AND ITS ‘INDIGNADOS’|
|Sunday, 05 June 2011 13:01|
(RIEAS Senior Analyst)
For the past ten days we have been witnessing an unprecedented -for Greek standards- protest in Syntagma Square. Syntagma Square (trnsl. Constitution Square) has been flooded by thousands of peaceful protesters who, organised through Facebook and following the example of Spain’s ‘Indignados’, voice their frustration and disapproval against the existing political elite and their recent decisions.
This protest marks in many ways a turning point. Apart from the use of social media as a vehicle for social mobilisation -which is probably to be expected given their extensive use and prevalence, especially in younger generations- the most obvious new factor is the persistence, the large numbers and the synthesis of the participants. Demonstrators have participated in such great numbers only in rallies of political parties and only after extensive organisation and costs by parties’ structures. The constantly high and increasing daily numbers of participants were until last the first Wednesday of the protests unknown to nonpartisan rallies. Even more surprising is perhaps the tenacity of the demonstrators; Greeks have been known for their readiness to go to the streets and demonstrate for their demands but such a steady flow of large numbers of people for so long is utterly new in recent Greek history. Most importantly though the synthesis of the crowds gathering in Syntagma Square is also refreshingly new. The mosaic of Syntagma comprises individuals, of all ages, social and professional backgrounds, with different demands, concerns, professional, social and economic backgrounds, personal aims, or political convictions. This combination of large numbers of participants, perseverance and plurality, makes the daily meetings in Syntagma the first page of a new form of social mobilisation for Greece.
Despite their vast differences, what unites them all is a deep disappointment of their representatives and more broadly of the political staff. This phenomenon is certainly not new; Greeks have been used to big and broken promises, along with political requests for sacrifices to achieve yet one more political or economic milestone (ie. meeting the Maastricht criteria, entering the Euro-zone, financing the Olympic Games etc.). The fatigue from the repeated requests for more and more sacrifices with insufficient tangible results at the citizens’ level has been obvious for long, as has been the realisation and acceptance of the widespread corruption.
Yet the triggers that brought thousands to the streets have been the recent unquestionable deterioration of the quality of life and, most importantly, the clear lack of future prospects for improvement. The sad realisation of the inadequacy of the political staff, for decades now, in addressing the pressing issues facing Greece, has become the common denominator for the Syntagma mosaic. Such strong disillusionment - resulting from a number of cycles of renewed and eventually unfulfilled hopes and promises - has natural difficulties in differentiating between the rule of ‘bad politicians’ and the exceptions of a few ‘decent’ ones. It tends to generalise and reject the political system as inadequate, opportunistic, unjust, unethical, unpatriotic and solely self-interested.
This dismissal of the representatives currently in place, has been demonstrated as a categorically nonpartisan, yet strongly political, character that the demonstrators have claimed and so far preserved for their protests. The protesters have loudly, clearly and repeatedly claimed their independence from any kind of representative body. They have voiced their disapproval for all political parties, political parties’ youths, unions etc. The change in this regard is monumental. The tradition in Greece has been, for too long, to demonstrate after a call by and under the auspices of some organisation or representative body. This form of social mobilisation of individuals, without the control or guardianship of any formal body is entirely new for Greece.
The people meeting in Syntagma every evening have all personal stories to share, stories ranging from economic difficulties - due to the recession and the new economic measures - all the way to sheer desperation. They are very diverse and they are not gathered due to ideology or political guidance. They all have personal stakes that bring them there. This strong sense of personal involvement and interest, as well as of ownership of the protests, is a strong differentiating factor of the ‘Indignants of Syntagma’ (‘Apogoitevmenoi tou Syntagmatos’) and a significant reason why attention should be paid to them.
The sense of ownership and personal involvement is also evident in the slogans heard. Often accentuated with profanities, the slogans target, among others, specific politicians, the parliamentarians as a whole -calling them thieves-, journalists, the new economic measures and the need for better quality of life. Two of the most representative slogans read: “Poverty is the worst violence” and “Bread, Education, Liberty; Junta did not end in 1973”. The profanity of the slogans, vulgar as it may sound to some, is also evidence of the strong personal involvement of the participants, the intensity of their frustration and also of the dynamic participation of the youth -which is traditionally absent from partisan rallies-. The protesters address the politicians not in a politically-correct way but they choose instead to cry to them as they would in real terms in their everyday life.
In addition to the elements mentioned above, what is interesting is the expressed rejection of journalists in the protests. The questionable role that the media is playing has been the center of analysis numerous times, but it has never before been so loudly, massively and publicly criticised. What is also interesting is the approach the media has taken on the protests in Syntagma. From the beginning of the protests, on Wednesday, May 25th, until the European meeting on Sunday, May 29th, the media coverage of the protests was minimal. It should be noted, for fairness sake, that during that time the political developments, both domestically and internationally were crucial for the economic future of the country. Having said that though, the protests hardly made the news during those days, and the information on traditional media was very limited. The difference was of course striking on electronic media and especially social media which became the vehicle for the demonstrations to take place. After Sunday, there was a 180o turn. Every single TV show started to focus on the ‘Indignados’, trying to analyse them, categorise them and approach them in an awkward befriending campaign. Interestingly, with the first tensions on Wednesday, June 1st, the ‘Indignados’ from friends became scapegoats.
One of the many surprises of the Syntagma phenomenon is the stance of the protesters towards the police force guarding the Parliament. Instead of confronting them verbally and otherwise -as they would have traditionally done-, they have been inviting them to leave their guns and join them. They call the policemen employees in uniform, thus placing them in their ranks rather than against them.
The phenomenon of the protests in Syntagma Square marks a number of positive developments. Firstly, Greeks seem to be claiming back their right to express themselves publicly as individuals, without strict associations. They keep gathering in great numbers, non-violently (for the most part), and with no common affiliation, thus gaining credibility and even greater participation by people who want to be heard but would never show up in traditional, partisan and often violent protests. They have refused, so far, to be hijacked by self-proclaimed saviors, representatives and spokespersons, with limiting agendas. They have employed self-administered media (such as Facebook) to facilitate their mobilisation and maintain their autonomy. What is also important is the fact that they have chosen to protest in a rather positive way; Syntagma is not only about frustration, anger and desperation, it is also about getting heard while refusing to resort to misery, with music, events, public meetings etc.
Most significantly, what the Greeks have managed to reclaim is their sense of individual dignity and pride in being Greek, by refusing to accept decisions on their behalf unquestionably and by distinguishing themselves from them. Also, unprecedentedly, the ‘Apogoitevmenoi’ in Syntagma have managed to reclaim their national anthem and national flag. Historical reasons have prevented this from happening for more almost forty years; the flag and the anthem have had negative, authoritarian and nationalistic connotations due to the historical experience of the junta. Now, for the first time in a non-athletic rally, the flag and the anthem are not an unwanted tag but a source of coveted affiliation.
Another important message of Syntagma relates to the notion of the social contract. Until the first Wednesday of the Syntagma protests, the dominant, and almost only, meeting between citizens and representatives were the elections, with the first serving as electorate and the second as candidates. No evaluation, no actual oversight was actually performed in the meantime. The crowds in Syntagma offer a significant warning in this regard and demand greater accountability, greater consistency between promises and actions, and, in the bottom line, greater political ethos and return for their votes.
The most crucial factor in the future evolution of the “Kinima ton Aganaktismenon” (Movement of the Indignants) is the stance that the elected parliamentarians and the political parties will choose to adopt. As most of the journalists did (with few noteworthy exceptions), the political staff have mostly tried to ignore the new phenomenon. Especially during the first days of the protests, and with important economic and political developments for Greece taking place on those very days, politicians failed to acknowledge the protests and their significance. When they eventually spoke about Syntagma, it was mostly to downgrade the importance and the impact of the daily demonstrations. Most characteristically, the Vice President of the government called the protests a “[painless defusing, which is of no interest to politics]”. This approach infuriated the protesters and strengthened their resolve. After the initial numbness, silence and contempt, several politicians and parties attempted, unsuccessfully, to appease or even get associated with the protesters.
This stance is not only failing to defuse the situation but it may easily result in increasing further the current tensions. To be clear, the movement of Syntagma has led the way to a new, uncharted territory for social mobilisation in Greece. The participants are diverse, they have no coherence and we should not expect them to grow into a viable political alternative any time soon. That’s not the purpose of the movement and it cannot be. Any effort to reconcile the differences of opinions and demands of such a diverse crowd would either result in nothing more than empty talk, full of meaningless lowest common denominators, or -most likely- in alienating a great part of the participants, thus undermining the strength and significance of the movement.
The lack of coherence though also means that there can be no control on how the various segments of the participants -or indeed other external parties watching the developments- will react to different stimuli. Non-violence is a clear decision of the protesters in Syntagma and one that increases their strength and significance. In an environment of rising tensions, challenges and Manichean terms of debate, things may easily get out of control.
The strength of the Syntagma movement is not in offering answers -that’s the elected officials’ job-, but in providing a reality check, a reminder of the terms of the social contract. How long the protests will last is unclear. However long the protesters will continue though, their main messages are addressed to their elected representatives. If the politicians continue to ignore them or even worse aim to engulf the protesters, we should expect further, unpredictable escalation. When tens of thousands of frustrated people ask to be heard, their elected representatives need to show some minimal respect and do just that; listen.
If semantics can point to any conclusion, the always closed shutters of the Parliament as demonstrators gather for the eleventh day in front of it, is probably not a good indication of the listening capacity of the current inhabitants of the historic building. What the last few days have shown is that the Greeks may actually continue to try getting heard. Somehow... And indignantly...