ATHENS (Reuters) - Prime Minister George Papandreou warned on Wednesday that violent protests against spending cuts to satisfy international lenders threatened to lead to the kind of barbarism that in the past had derailed democracy in Greece.
The austerity required in exchange for a bailout for debt-ridden Greece has sparked attacks on politicians and bloody demonstrations on the streets of Athens, where hooded youths have fought running battles with riot police.
In a reference to the installation of the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, Papandreou told a cabinet meeting that undermining democratic institutions in the past had led to a “derailment of democracy.”
“We must all learn from history,” he said.
A government official made clear Papandreou did not mean there was a risk the military would take over.
“The prime minister did not say democracy was in danger. He meant that violence would open the way to anti-democratic behaviors and reminded people of history,” said the official who requested anonymity.
The austerity package, that included wage cuts and tax rises, was imposed amid the deepest recession since the restoration of democracy and has been deeply unpopular.
Clearly worried about law and order, the prime minister called for an inter-party parliamentary committee to be set up to decide on new measures, within the framework of existing law, “to protect and better manage public gatherings and policing.”
In comments to the cabinet meeting, which were televised nationally, Papandreou said: “A state ruled by law cannot tolerate any spontaneous or organised violence. Everybody must realize that the attacks against parliament, MPs and other citizens are mutilating democracy and undermining civil rights.
“They are creating conditions for even more lawlessness, more insecurity, finally hurting the weak and the nation.”
Papandreou said there were extremist political groups seeking to exploit Greece’s crisis which were encouraging “riots, attacks, the abuse against MPs and political parties ...
“Blockades, violence and the attempt at ideological terrorism have no place in a democracy, in public spaces, in universities, squares, neighborhoods and the media.”
Protesters have marched through the capital shouting slogans, banging drums and carrying banners attacking the terms of the bailout many Greeks feel imposes harsh penalties on ordinary pensioners and workers while sparing the rich.
Ordinary Greeks also want to hold politicians accountable for the state of the nation’s finances and protesters who gather every night before parliament chant: “Thieves, Thieves!”
There have been a series of attacks on and threats to members of the ruling PASOK socialist party and some politicians have been forced to cancel engagements including Papandreou.
Protesters threw eggs and yoghurt at one PASOK lawmaker in the central city of Lamia while others threw bottles and a chair at a PASOK deputy as he left parliament.
Riot police are now stationed in the streets surrounding Syntagma Square in central Athens which became the epicenter of protest where violent clashes have taken place and where activists camp out maintaining a 24-hour vigil.
Having seen the ferocity of the attacks by hardcore protesters on police, Papandreou was at pains to emphasize that freedom of speech must be within the rule of law.
“It is not a democratic right of the fanatics to arbitrarily threaten fellow citizens and human beings. It is not their democratic right to do whatever they like,” he said.
Athenian democracy, dating back to around 500 BC, is one of the world’s oldest and although other Greek cities set up their own democracies none was as powerful.
In Greece’s modern history a group of army colonels seized power in April 1967 and seven years later the military junta collapsed, democracy was restored and the monarchy was abolished.
Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Jon Boyle