After five hours of heated debate, Greek lawmakers voted to approve tough new austerity measures on Wednesday, allowing an 86 billion euro bailout deal to go ahead despite dissent within the ruling Syriza party and a tense atmosphere outside Parliament in Athens, where protesters gathered in Syntagma Square in a show of opposition.
The demonstrators banged on drums, played rousing songs, and waved flags from various left-wing parties. And then, as darkness fell, the first Molotov cocktails, stun grenades, and tear gas canisters began to fly.
For nearly six months now, Greece has been locked in a battle with its European creditors and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A new left-wing government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hoped to broker a better deal and put an end to harsh wage and pension cuts, new taxes, and soaring unemployment — all of which have crippled the country's social and economic structure.
In the end, Greece blinked first. Faced with exiting the euro zone or signing up for a third bailout, 61 percent of Greeks voted on July 5 to reject the latest bailout proposal. Despite the resounding vote, however, Greek leaders pledged stringent austerity on Monday to avoid financial chaos and a so-called "Grexit" from the euro.
"The Greek people are fully conscious and can understand the difference between those who fight in an unfair battle and those who just hand in their weapons," Tsipras said in a speech before the vote on Wednesday, calling for the bailout to be approved.
Parliamentary Speaker Zoe Constantopoulo walked out before the vote, calling it a "very black day for democracy in Europe." The new legislation raises the retirement age and includes several steep tax hikes.
Outside, angry protesters carried banners written in red and black calling on the public to reject austerity and "Free Greece from the Euro." Other signs called for the public to take to the streets with the message: "Hope is Gone. Now the battle starts."
Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras talk during Wednesday's parliamentary session in Athens. (Photo by Orestis Panagiotou/EPA)
Despite the presence of flag sellers, snack vendors, and stands offering drinks and grilled meat, there was none of the carnival atmosphere that had marked the gatherings for a "No" vote in the referendum. The mood was dark as young anarchists prepared to square off with riot police. People of all ages sat glum-faced in the main square and on a closed-off street in front of Parliament. Some came with their children. Others, wearing masks and holding sticks, huddled in groups of four or five, talking quietly.
"It's very simple," a 33-year-old father with his 3-year-old son told VICE News. "I'm here for the future of my child. The new measures are such that I will pay for them, my child will pay, his children will pay and his grandchildren will pay.
"They tricked us with the referendum, we didn't know what yes or no meant," he added. "The only solution is to leave the European Union and live independently. The banks took the money, not us. If the new measures pass, we'll really struggle."
Niki, 52, a mother of four, told VICE News that gatherings like the one Wednesday are the only way for the members of the public to express themselves. "I feel betrayed," she said. "We thought that the opinion of the public would be respected by this government. I don't care if they were forced, people matter more than markets."
"The new program is very harsh and won't solve our problems," she continued. "If this program is applied, we'll starve and so will our children. I see no hope if it's applied." She said that all of her children have considered leaving Greece.
'If this program is applied, we'll starve and so will our children.'
Manos, a member of the anti-capitalist political fringe group ANTARSYA, told VICE News that he planned to fight back against austerity. "This government came to power on an anti-austerity message," he said. "If this program passes, we won't let it be applied, because we can't take any more. We'll block it at every single step."
Asked if he has considered leaving the country, Manos replied, "I want to stay here not because I have a problem with other countries, but because we're fighting a battle here. And if we win, we'll be a good example for other countries."
Nearby, a 19-year-old mathematics student sitting with her friends called the new austerity legislation "a mistake."
"We came here because we are against the European Union," she said. "It's better to go through five more difficult years outside the euro zone rather than stay in it.
"I don't believe Tsipras when he says this time the bailout will be more evenly spread," she added. "That choice is not in his hands."
After sunset, the usual cat and mouse game between anarchists and riot police ensued, lasting for about 30 minutes. At a kiosk near Syntagma Square, the owner was not impressed with the night's unrest. "They can all go to hell," he said of the anarchists. "The bill will pass. Can we do anything about it? All we can do is try and cope with it."
Maria, who was selling grilled corn from a mobile stand, echoed that sentiment.
"What's coming next is going to be really hard," she told VICE News, gesturing back toward the discord unfolding nearby. "Look at this! How will be get through it if we're not united?"
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Watch the VICE News dispatch, Yes or No? Greece Again on the Brink: Greek Debt Crisis: