A personal assessment of the grassroots referendum that took place in Thessaloniki on May 18 regarding water privatization. You can read all about the background to the referendum here.
First, on the quantitative side:
About 2000 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. More than half 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, often to inaccessible spots away from the entrances.
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 voted 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.
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 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 Sunday’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 about 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 Sunday’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 current mayor Christos Pachtas, who is practically a spokesperson for Eldorado Gold, the Canadian company promoting the mining project. On Sunday May 18 the movement’s candidate, Giannis Michos, won by a moderate 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 miningrights 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 Michos 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, pitting all groups against each other and thus allowing a small ruthless elite to rule over the great majority of the population.