Eye-witness reports are emerging through the media today about the behaviour of the 'peaceful' marchers outside the torched Marfin Popular Bank building yesterday.
When several violent protesters smashed the bank's windows and hurled in molotov cocktails, a cheer rose from the crowd, say witnesses. Later, as the first fire engines tried to approach, they were met with a hail of stones. Certainly, march leaders were bent on pushing the protest past the burning bank building yesterday even as the fire brigade struggled to rescue trapped people, as though the success of the march were on a par with the lives that were at stake. These circumstances suggest two things: that the violent protesters meant harm to the people inside the bank, and obstructed the timely extinction of the fire; and that the trumpeted divide between legitimate political expression and criminal anarchy is eroding.
To his credit, Prime Minister Yiorgos Papandreou told parliament last night that all parties were responsible for the political climate. Violent expressions provide a basis of legitimacy for violent acts, he said. The conservative opposition has said that it will neither support nor obstruct today's bill instituting the austerity measures tied to the EU-IMF package. In other words, conservative leader Antonis Samaras understands that now is not the time for populism, but he is leaving his options open.
However, it is doubtful whether the prime minister's call for responsibility will have much effect on union leaders and communists. Union leaders in Greece are cut from a populist cloth. As far as they are concerned, labour and capital are natural enemies. The communists, divided between the Communist Part of Greece and the Left Coalition, have spent the last 35 years as plaintiffs for their post-civil war persecution, and are determined to have their day. They know they will never seize power and will allow themselves to speak and act as eternal sophomores. On the basis of just 12 percent of the popular vote in last October's election, they will have a disproportionate effect on the political climate, as they always have done. Papandreou controls parliament, but they largely control the streets.
The rhetoric against banks is directly related to the anti-capitalist sentiments of the left, and so is the persistent violence that takes place against them on the fringes of popular rallies. Yesterday's torching of a bank full of people was the culmination of hundreds of exercises in window smashing, the driving of crowbars through ATM screens and the torching of closed branches over the past few years.
Which way will Greece go? There is no option but to follow through on the IMF-EU package. It offers Greece a top interest rate of 5 percent over the next three years, which is less than half what it would pay on open markets today. But how the government implements the concomitant austerity can, to a large extent, determine the success of the outcome.