Europe’s Thirst for Democracy

May 19, 2014 News

Guest article by Florian Schmitz,Thessaloniki

Simultaneously with the first ballot of the local elections on Sunday, the citizens of Thessaloniki were also invited to vote on the privatization of the public water company EYTHA. 98% of them said “Oxi” (“No”), rejecting the government’s plan to privatize EYTHA. But the referendum is unofficial. On Saturday, the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Supreme Court in Athens had declared the public vote illegal. Despite this, 218,000 people took part.

The referendum was organized by the citizen’s initiative Soste to nero(Save the water). “This is not a public referendum”, explains Giannis Konstantinidis, Professor of Engineering and an active member of the group. “The municipality of Thessaloniki doesn’t offer the legal basis for holding a public vote. But we think that if enough people participate we can exert more pressure on the government.” Eventually, approximately 40% of the half a million citizens with voting priveliges took part in the referendum, which exceeded by far the expectations of the organizers.

Referendum held despite official ban by government

And people did participate. It was the hope of the organizers to achieve a representative number of votes by linking the referendum with the local elections. The plan worked out: more than half of those who elected the new administration also took part in the public vote. “Many people came just for the referendum and didn’t vote in the elections”, reported one of the many volunteers in a district in the East part of the city, just a few hours before the polling stations closed.

Unexpected support came from the government in Athens. Around noon on Saturday, less than 24 hours before the referendum was due to begin, the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Supreme Court in Athens declared the public vote illegal. They explained their course of action by referring to the proximity to the local elections, banned the referendum from the official polling stations and threatened all of those handing out voting slips with possible legal action. “The government is bluffing”, commented Juán Antonio Julián, coordinator of the international election observers, on the drastic measures taken by the government. “We even believe that this has motivated more people to vote”.

And he was right. The state police did not interfere. None of the international observers, who came from Germany, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Austria, reported any irregularities. They even mentioned how well the organizers managed to adapt to the new situation after Athens had banned the referendum. The ballot boxes were placed outside the official polling stations and the list of voters (electoral roll) were reduced to first and last name in order to avoid any similarity with the documents of the local elections.

Although hardly acknowledged in the leading European media, the referendum in Thessaloniki is a milestone on Europe’s path to become more democratic. After the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative campaign Right2Water that collected more than two million votes against the privatization of water all over Europe, and after comparable national referendums such as the ones in Berlin and Paris, the demand of the people to participate in the shaping of Europe becomes increasingly obvious.

Proof of this cannot only be found in the social media, where people all over the continent followed the events in Greece, but also in view of the many people who came and helped. It was because of hundreds of volunteers from Thessaloniki that the public vote could be held without any significant incidents. The referendum was an example of determination and public order – despite the threatening gestures from the state government. Supporters also came from other European countries, among them Claus Kittstein. Officially sent by the Berlin Water Forum to observe the referendum, he perpetually wandered from one public appearance to another, gave radio and television interviews and warned people about the dangers of blind privatization.

No united Europe without the people

For many the idea of a united Europe has already failed. But despite the one-sided measures taken to overcome the crisis by the state governments, despite the many privatizations imposed on the people and despite the lack of transparency from administrations and the economy, the referendum in Thessaloniki shows that politics is the people’s business and responsibility. A united Europe will not work without including its citizens in the policies and political decisions. “The whole thing here is not only about the water, but about democracy itself”, explains Janna Tsokou from Soste To Nero. It remains to be seen how the government in Athens will react to the clear results of the public vote. There has been no official statement so far.

For the municipality of Thessaloniki and for the citizens’ initiative Soste To Nero the referendum was a huge success. The tremendous organizational effort already served its purpose by raising the citizens’ attention to the dangers of privatizing water. It is unlikely that the sell-off itself can be stopped. The people of Thessaloniki are aware of that. If Athens doesn’t react at all, people might – once again – become disillusioned. Their government has failed to listen to them too many times. However, the most important effect of the referendum is that questions concerning the necessity of more direct democracy have been raised and need to be answered in the future – not only in Greece, but everywhere in Europe.

About the author:

Florian Schmitz studied Comparative Literature in Berlin and Madrid. He lives in Thessaloniki, where he works as a freelance writer and blogger. At he reflects upon the crisis and its effects.