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People vs. corporate rule: Some personal notes from my participation in Thessaloniki’s great #vote4water referendum

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More than 1500 volunteers set up ballot boxes outside the 192 electoral centres of the 11 municipalities of Thessaloniki’s metropolitan area, at the same time as the municipal elections taking place inside. Numerous groups and citizens’ initiatives worked side by side to carry out the plebiscite, with the infrastructural and moral support of the 11 municipal councils. A few volunteers, intimidated by the government’s threats to arrest the organizers for «obstructing the electoral process», failed to show up, however the coordinating groups moved people around quickly and covered the vacancies. There were minor incidents, with some police guards refusing to hand the ballot boxes to the organizers, but legal counsellors intervened successfully in all cases.

218.000 people cast their vote, about 34% of registered voters. Compare this to 55% of registered voters who participated in the municipal elections. About 60% of those who voted inside the electoral centres also voted in the referendum. Had the ballot boxes been inside the schoolyards, in central easy to find places, this figure would have been much higher. Unfortunately the government disregarded the organizers’ call and banished them from the yards.

98% of the vote was for “NO” to privatizing Thessaloniki’s water and sewerage company. The reason for this “North Korean” kind of figure is twofold: First, Thessalonikeans are overwhelmingly against privatization. Opinion polls before the referendum showed opposition to privatization to be as high as 75%. Second, the government, through statements by Thessaloniki’s conservative mayoral candidate and a memo by the Minister of Interior, gave the “party line” to its supporters: The referendum is “illegal” and “of questionable validity”. Thus many conservative voters stayed away from the ballot boxes, although as many of them participated on the “NO” side.

Hundreds of volunteers stayed up until 4.00 in the morning counting the votes, in a mixed state of exhaustion and euphoria, under the supervision of Thessaloniki’s Barristers Association and dozens of international observers. The results were displayed live at vote4water.gr.

Now, on the qualitative side:

The referendum is undoubtedly the biggest grassroots mobilisation the city has seen in years. It required a high grade of sustained commitment and responsibility on behalf of a great number of people, and it created a great feeling of bonding among participants. Being the outcome of a wide alliance of collectives, institutions and individuals that cut across the political spectrum, it required close cooperation and joint action among groups that are normally in disagreement or competition, thus laying the foundations for future political understanding and coexistence. It shattered the loneliness and sense of isolation of long-time commons activists, who came in contact with the general population and realized there is a thread connecting our struggles with the concerns of Thessaloniki´s citizens. Despite us keeping strict neutrality at the time of voting and trying to discourage discussion around the ballot box, people kept expressing their outrage at the plans of selling off the water company or the attempt to declare illegal the referendum. It was an empowering moment, where we Thessalonikeans felt that they have recovered a bit of the dignity taken away from them by 4 years of austerity and dispossession. Many people, disillusioned by the electoral process, went out just to vote in the referendum; it is unbelievable what great effect making ones’ voice heard on an important issue can have in a political system that systematically treats voters as clients and promotes apathy and resignation.

On 18th May we thus planted a small seed of direct democracy and citizens’ participation in political matters. Of course a lot of what passes as direct democracy today in Greece is seriously misguided, a common formula being “representative democracy + referendums on important matters = direct democracy”. Far from that, direct democracy is the unmediated participation of the whole of society in political governance from the local level up, without the need for representational structures and frequent rituals of delegation of our political power, such as the national elections. But of course the way to this ideal of engaged and active citizens that have taken their lives into their own hands passes through direct involvement with the local community, awareness raising and education in solidarity and cooperation, through breaking loose from a lifelong learning in individualism, consumerism and social isolation. This is another aspect where the referendum has been crucial: in creating political consciousness and collective empowerment.

Before the referendum, Thessaloniki’s water movement consisted of a few hundred dedicated activists and a large number of concerned citizens. After the empowering experience of the referendum, I venture to say that this movement can acquire “popular movement” proportions, comparable to the mass movement fighting for land and dignity against a poisonous mega-mining project in nearby Chalkidiki.

After yesterday’s experience, the only thing that could hinder the development of the movement, as is often the case in successful struggles, would be an internal fight among aspiring politicians, political parties and other groups for extracting political surplus value from the majestic mobilization of thousands of people who honestly do not give a damn about movement micro-politics. We all need to stay humble in such a critical moment of the struggle; a big battle was won, but the real enemy, corporate capitalism with its puppet government, keeps having Thessaloniki’s water company in a headlock. Until we mobilise all together to oust them from our city, crying victory and claiming credit would simply be preposterous. And staying humble at this moment means: Recognizing that the movement is diverse and multitudinous; that no one person or group can represent or speak on behalf of the whole movement; that no one political party, mayoral candidate or group can claim credit for the outcome of the referendum; and most importantly, that the big common “NO” to the privatization is only a preamble to an open and democratic discussion about the future of water management, and the best possible way to ensure democratic participation, environmental protection, transparency and social justice in the provision of this valuable resource.

On an interesting side note, in yesterday’s municipal elections in nearby Municipality of Aristoteles, afflicted by the mining conflict mentioned above, the movement that opposes the mine managed, through democratic processes, to elect a common candidate to run against corrupt Christos Pachtas, who is practically on the payroll of Eldorado Gold, the Canadian company promoting the mining project. Yesterday the movement’s candidate, Giannis Michos, won by a small margin and managed to oust Pachtas from a position that he considers his birthright –after all he was the Vice-minister of Economics who sold the mining rights for peanuts to the Canadian company, a transaction condemned by the European Courts.

Despite being accused of having watered down his anti-mining stance, new mayor Giannis Michas is the symbol of a movement that puts aside differences and micropolitics to confront the common enemy through all means necessary. It is the first sign of maturity in Greek anti-neoliberal resistance movements, in a landscape where those in power have managed to divide and conquer, pit all groups against each other and thus allow a small ruthless elite to rule over the great majority of the population.

Theodoros Karyotis
May 2014

218,000 citizens of Thessaloniki, or how we experienced the referendum

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The same article in Greek here

The undeniable success of the referendum on the privatization of EYATh (Corporation of public waters of Thessaloniki) is not only its result. It is certainly of paramount importance that 98% of those who voted said no to the privatization of water, but more important are the new elements for our understanding of political action and mostly the unprecedented situations we experienced last Sunday. The participation in the referendum of those who came to vote for municipal and regional elections reached, based on our estimates (the number of votes cast in the referendum) at rates close to or above 60 % . But the message was mainly qualitative . Most people voted with a smile, tenacity and conviction. «Water is for everyone, and they will not get it» sounded of all ages, from 18 to 80. Parents with children, put their children to cast their vote, and many told them: «we vote no, you should know, because the water is for everyone and it is ours. And they will not do what they want». The life and power of the many is still here, four years after the onset of the oligarchic assault and social disaster. With the collective participation in an initiative that began as a citizens’ initiative, as ordinary, non partisan citizens we were all in the election commission. Nothing is over, everything is possible; it’s time to show and impose the power of the many for the common good .

The 218,000 residents of Thessaloniki who enthusiastically participated in the electoral process and the more than 2,000 volunteers gave a truly self-organized and ‘from below’ character to the referendum and proved that democratic processes on a large scale can be realised. From very early on Sunday morning the flow of people to the referendum was beyond all expectations. No citizen was leaving the really long queues (especially at peak times) and many volunteers did not change their shift! Those who came stayed on, and most kept their posts from six in the morning until midnight for the counting of votes in the town hall of Thessaloniki. It is characteristic that many people came and voted only for the Water !

The initial decision and prediction was (or should be) that the referendum take place in the same room with the municipal elections, and voters enter the booth and fold the ballots so that they do not show. Envelopes were finally not used after Michelaki’s decision for purely economic reasons. Elections are costly when they concern 200m + people and the referendum had little funding and relied mainly on volunteers. With better funding, there would have been envelops.

The members of the election commission were volunteers many of whom had little relevant experience or knowledge, so they were given basic instructions which nevertheless did not cover the new conditions. In general we were asking voters to fold the ballots before casting them and suggested to those who were concerned with privacy to get all three ballots, fold one a little further away and then cast it. There were people who did this, and others who voted yes and said they did not want privacy; these were our efforts with the means we had: to ensure full neutrality we did not make comments or proposals, we did not even have NO posters or t-shirts.

You can read the results on http://www.vote4water.gr/

It will now be very difficult for the government and multinational companies who prey onthe city’s water to ignore the will of the citizens of Thessaloniki. Water is a public good and a human right and no one is more qualified to manage it but the users themselves.

Member of the website dimotopia who actively participated in the electoral comissions of the referendum

18 May, Thessaloniki’s water referendum: One no, many yeses

 

Thessaloniki is a lively sprawling metropolis located in the north of Greece. As with the rest of the country, it is affected by increasing unemployment and poverty, a result of the government’s Troika-dictated policies, which have driven the economy into a deep recession.

In Greece, as in many other countries in the past, disaster capitalism has utilized the sovereign debt crisis -that it also helped produce- as an excuse to push forward an aggressive campaign of neoliberal plunder: Attack on the populations’ social, political and labour rights, dismantling of the health and education system, massive dispossession through mega-mining projects, and privatisation of everything that constitutes the public wealth. Again, as in many other cases, the government and the media are mindlessly repeating neoliberalism’s favourite mantra: «there is no alternative».

In this context, as part of the terms of the loathed «memorandum» imposed by the IMF, in 2011 the government announced its plans to privatize EYATH, the state-managed company providing the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants with water and sanitation services.Suez, the water sector giant, was quick to express interest in profitable EYATH. As of May 2014, the privatization process is underway, and two bidders, French Suez and Israeli Mekorot, have advanced to the second phase of the public tender.

Despite the blackmail and propaganda, the citizens of Thessaloniki and their organizations have been opposing the government’s plan to sell off the company for three years now. They have managed to put the issue in the public agenda and provide concrete evidence on how privatisation of water services worldwide has invariably led to increases in tariffs, deterioration of the infrastructure, decrease in water quality, and the exclusion of great parts of the population from access to this vital common good.

Through their participation in the global and European movement for the defence of water, the Greek civil society organizations have found out how the model of privatisation that the government now tries to forcefully impose has failed in dozens of cities around the world, prompting the municipal authorities of a long list of cities to take back water management, in a worldwide shift towards remunicipalisation.

Indeed, the citizens of the EU are waking up to the fact that water management should be public, democratic and transparent. Nearly 2 million people in 28 countries have backed the European Citizens’ Initiative against water privatisation, Right 2 Water. The results of the ECI were presented to the European Parliament on 17 February 2014, forcing EMPs of all political persuasions to acknowledge that water privatisation is extremely unpopular in the EU, and obliging the European Commission to exclude it from the concessions directive.

With the tide turning away from privatisation worldwide, the Greek government remains isolated and has a very hard time convincing the citizens that “there is no alternative”. Indeed there are plenty of alternatives proposed regarding water management in Thessaloniki, all with a view to safeguard this vital good and ensure social justice and equal access.

Many citizens and organizations want to uphold state management, which has ensured reasonable tariffs to this day. Some others think that water management is more appropriately the task of municipal authorities. The Regional Union of Municipalities has already declared its interest in creating an inter-municipal water management authority. A third and innovative proposal comes from Initiative 136, a grassroots movement organising the citizens of Thessaloniki in local non-profit water cooperatives, which will unite to manage the water company under the principles of direct democracy, social justice, participation and accountability.

But in order to open the democratic dialogue on which is the most socially and environmentally responsible model of water management, the citizens of Thessaloniki have to face the common threat of privatisation. There is mounting social, political and legal pressure against selling off the company, and both local and national polls show that about 75% of the population opposes the measure. And with a Council of State (Greece’s supreme administrative court) decision pending regarding the constitutionality of the privatization, the process is now stalled, despite the best efforts of the neoliberal government.

In this political context, the numerous collectives and institutions that defend water as a common good and as a human right (SOSte To NeroInitiative 136, EYATH Workers’ Union, Water Warriors, Open Assembly of Citizens for Water, and the Regional Union of Municipalities to name but a few) decided to step up the political pressure by organising a city-wide referendum regarding the privatisation of EYATH. The referendum is non-binding, as the Greek legal framework does not allow consulting the population on government policy unless it is ratified by presidential decree or an enhanced majority in the parliament. However, the organizers are certain it will make evident the overwhelming opposition of the population towards the privatization, and it will serve as a manifestation of popular will.

The date was set for 18 May 2014, at the same time as the first round of the municipal and regional elections, and a week before the European elections. It is a genuinely grassroots effort which is mobilising thousands of volunteers who will set up ballot boxes outside the electoral centres of Thessaloniki’s metropolitan area. Despite their limited funds and the hostile stance of corporate mass media, the campaigners have managed to cut through the despair, resignation and apathy brought about by 4 years of frontal attack on people’s lives. Feeling the warmth of international solidarity, the campaigners have informed and engaged Thessaloniki’s population, and they are now in a creative frenzy to ensure the organization of the referendum is efficient and transparent.

As economic governance gets more and more removed from the interests of the population that it claims to represent, the task now lies with the citizens to claim their basic rights, reinvent democracy and protect the common goods through popular initiatives. Greece, global capitalism’s latest experiment in accumulation by dispossession, foreshadows the bleak future that the corporate elites have in store for Europe’s population. But the Greek social movements and organisations do not intend to be passive observers to the corporate plunder. To the blunt repetition that “there is no alternative” they shout out that “there are plenty of alternatives” as long as the organised society unleashes its creativity and stands up for its rights and for its common goods.

 

Greece: At least 22 migrants died after boats capsized

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Another tragic incident of death occurred in the Aegean Sea, when migrants attempted to cross the waters from neighbouring Turkey aiming to arrive to the Greek island of Samos. The two boats carrying refugees capsized in the early hours of Monday morning off the coast of the island and were identified by a Finnish patrol boat that operates with the Frontex border guard forces. But when two coast-guard vessels as well as air-force and navy helicopters dispatched 22 people have already lost their lives, among them 4 children and twelve women (one of them was pregnant).

According to Kathimerini, 36 people were rescued and transported to Samos. Three men were hospitalized suffering from hypothermia. A three year old boy was transferred to Athens in critical condition, but it is believed that more refugees are missing, since the survivors indicate that almost 65 people had been carried out in the boats.

As the authorities claim, 23 of the survivors are from Somalia, 9 from Syria and 4 from Eritrea, although 18 were found trapped in the submerged hull of one of the boats which was a modern motor-yacht travelling with a Sierra Leone flag, according to Ethnos newspaper. This tragic incident comes to complete the Farmakonisi disaster, where 12 immigrants (9 women and three children) lost their lives on the 20th of January.

Greece is for many refugees the main gate to Europe. The majority of those who enter the country via the sea, following the effective closing of the border on the Evros river (which resulted in 188 adults and children to losing their lives between August 2012 and March 2014) are escaping from wars and poverty and «often try to slip into the European Union via Greece from the Turkish coast» says Joanna Kakissis for the NPR. Nonetheless, thanks to the regulations of the Dublin II treaty that the country’s PMs have signed (whose abolition is the only hope for obtaining a partial solution), most of the refugees find themselves trapped within the Greek territory.

Thus, the increasing number of immigrants in a country with scare economic resources has caused massive tensions between them and some local citizens. During the past few years, the situation dramatically worsened. Violent attacks occur on a daily basis in Athens and other cities. Migrants in Greece cannot enjoy social welfare housing and other benefits whilst the Greek state under the verge of financial collapse appears incapable to solve alone this large-scale humanitarian crisis (as on September 21st 2010 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees named that the asylum situation in Greece). The increase of tensions resulted for the rise of the neofascist party of Golden Dawn (whose members have participated in organized racist attacks). GD won the 7% of the total votes. Since then its percentage has almost doubled according to offociall statistics and polling behaviour reports.

Ukraine: 36 trade unionists killed in deadly conflict

Large scale clashes took place yesterday in Odessa, leading to a major fire at the House of Trade Unions where some pro-Russia supporters sought  refuge after being attacked by right-wing militants and government supporters in their encampment. The thugs threw petrol bombs against the building, resulting in the death 36 people from suffocation whilst others jumped from the windows to save themselves. Those who escaped from the flames were later on beaten to death once they fell in the hands of the mob.

The Right-Sector, a group of extremists who during the Euro-Maidan protests exercised arbitrary violence against political opponents, mainly consists of wandering groups of hooligans and criminal gangs. On Friday evening they gathered at Sompornagia Square for a peaceful protest against the Russian occupation. As always, they were masked, well equipped with shields, batons, helmets guns and other weapons. Soon, a few minutes after the crowd started marching in the streets, they begun throwing stones against counter protesters whilst chanting hate slogans (like “Glory to Ukraine,” “Death to enemies”).

Pogroms and street-fighting took place amid escalating violence later on, resulting to the tragic death of the 36 unarmed squatters. Most of them were leftists (and some pro-Russia activists) and received no protection, as the mob attempted to prevent the passage of fire trucks once the Trade Union Headquarters was soon engulfed in flames.

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