ATHENS (Reuters) - At the heart of Greece’s angry protests against painful economic reforms are a diverse group of demonstrators camped in front of parliament, united in hatred for politicians they blame for pushing the country to ruin.
Although their anger, like that of many other Greeks, is visceral, the permanent protest is mostly peaceful, only erupting into violence last Wednesday when the Finance Ministry was firebombed during clashes with riot police.
Behind the protests is a belief that foreign powers are forcing Greeks to swallow medicine so bitter it could kill the patient and that fat cat politicians and millionaires have dodged pain and stuffed their wallets while Greece heads for catastrophe.
“Why should I pay? I haven’t done anything wrong. I can’t afford a yacht or a pool like they can,” said Panagiotis Karydas, 50, a car mechanic who has voted for both the main political parties in the past.
“If I owe ten euros to the tax office they come after me. Why don’t they go after politicians?” he asked in the Syntagma Square protest camp.
Greece could be the first sovereign default in the euro zone unless Prime Minister George Papandreou rams through more unpopular austerity in exchange for international aid.
The square in front of the shuttered parliament building is scene of a permanent protest, bedecked with banners and filled with small tents where demonstrators sleep.
They include students, some of Greece’s army of jobless, pensioners whose savings have evaporated, workers, professors, and economists from all sides of the political spectrum.
Every evening a crowd that starts with a few hundred and often swells to several thousand rhythmically pushes open hands towards parliament, a highly offensive gesture in Greece, and chants derogatory slogans comparing MPs to common criminals.
During the day, a few gather in the square sweltering in the summer heat, to organise the evening’s events. But in the evening, a “people’s assembly” of whoever feels like participating meets to set the discussion agenda, voting is by a show of hands.
A “coordinating committee” of volunteers that changes regularly then passes little pieces of numbered papers to those who want to speak in an ancient Greek agora-style of discussion.
Each speaker gets about two minutes to have a say on any issue they choose and some may even sing. Thumbs down means a speaker’s message is rejected, fluttering fingers mean approval and hands rolling means this is not new. The results of votes are uploaded on a website: www.real-democracy.gr.
“What I like about this square is that people discuss things, they express themselves without fear,” said Stavroula Koloverou, 18, a university student who travelled from the southern town of Pyrgos to Athens for the protest.
“We want the system to change and we want all traditional politicians out. We want young people suffering in this system who still have dreams to take over.”
After the votes, teams are set up with specific duties, such as collecting garbage, offering first aid, communication, translation, messengers and the “keep cool team” in charge of quickly resolving conflicts.
Apart from the grassroots teams, several organised groups have also joined the protests in the square, including the “I won’t pay!” movement which rejects road tolls and transport tickets.
A group called the “300 Greeks” after the legendary Spartan force who fought a Persian army in ancient times, is collecting signatures to hold a referendum on the 110 billion euro (97.6 billion pound) EU/IMF bailout that saved Greece from bankruptcy last year in exchange for austerity.
Another group, of economists and academics, are studying how Greece became loaded with 350 billion euros of debt and who is to blame.
Across from some of the city’s most luxurious hotels, banners planted among the 50 or so tents read “Leave us alone,” “Reshuffles are also a sham” and “I don’t belong to any party!”
The protesters aim powerful green laser lights into the windows of parliament, the Finance Ministry, hotels and offices.
A poll on Sunday showed the majority of people on the square are between 25 and 50 years old, and have either supported the ruling Socialists or no party in the past. The poll by Kapa Research also showed their top three values were democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
About 24 percent are employed in the private sector, 15 percent are pensioners and 14 percent each are public servants, unemployed people or students.
“They don’t just represent the Greek people, they are the people,” said Peter Bratsis, lecturer in political theory at Britain’s Salford university.
“They show the disconnection between those who nominally represent the people and what the people themselves are actually demanding.
“There is definitely something new ... it’s beyond the control of the political parties and this is something different. The government will be forced to react.”
The protesters have vowed to stay in the square as long as the government tries to pass unpopular reforms, rattling the nerves of politicians who fear another outbreak of violence.
Despite its lack of ties with traditional parties and labour unions, the square has already shaken up Greek politics.
Papandreou addressed it in speeches and announced a referendum on big political issues in a bid to appease the protesters.
“I know the ‘arrows’ from the square are often unjustly pointed at parliament but they will be absolutely right if parliament fails to proceed with big changes in the political system,” he told lawmakers during the confidence motion debate.
The square was quick to respond, posting on its website: “Our vote is no confidence - those who created the problem cannot solve it.”
Sitting in front of parliament, Yannis Kalatzis, a 38-year-old waiter, says he has voted for both parties in the past but has abstained in recent elections.
“I can’t stand being cheated,” he said. “I’ve promised myself to vote again only when they lift politicians’ immunity. They are getting away with everything.”
He was particularly angry with Papandreou, saying he had not kept his promises to clean up political corruption.
“Before he was elected, this man said that we had enough money, he promised to jail those who made money off our backs, and to lift politicians’ immunity.”
“Well, if he had fulfilled his promises, this wouldn’t have happened. People wouldn’t have taken to the streets. He could even become a hero but he wasted his chance.”
And while the protests are deadly serious there is apparently still time for relaxation. “Please be quiet we are having sex,” is scrawled on one tent on the edge of the square.
Writing by Barry Moody and Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Janet Lawrence