Mitsotakis faces Greece’s biggest protests since eurozone crisis
Tens of thousands took to the streets all over the country to protest the country’s worst train disaster.
ATHENS — In the biggest mass demonstrations since the eurozone crisis, Greeks have hit the streets in some 75 cities and towns to protest the country’s deadliest train crash, ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis ahead of impending elections.
The wave of public rage follows a train collision on February 28 that killed 57 people and raised profound questions about the management of the state. Politically, the timing is sensitive as the ruling center-right New Democracy party, already under intense scrutiny over an espionage scandal, will face elections in the coming months, probably in May.
In Athens, more than 60,000 people marched, chanting “murderers” and anti-government slogans. Banners read “Call me when you arrive,” a phrase parents tell their children before they leave for a trip, which became closely identified with this round of rallies, as most of the victims were university students. The protests were organized by labor unions and student associations, while strikes halted ferries to the islands and public transport in Athens.
Several cafes and stores remained closed with the sign “We are all on the train today” hung at their entrance. A group of protesters clashed with police, who fired back with tear gas.
Some 20,000 people took to the streets in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, which also led to scuffles. Members of the families that lost their children gathered outside the hospital in the city of Larissa, where victims were transferred last week.
Since the crash, a stationmaster has been jailed and charged with negligent homicide, pending trial, and the transport minister and senior railway officials resigned. Greek authorities had received warnings on multiple occasions over the past years from the EU railways agency.
“This is more than a train collision and a tragic railway accident. A whole generation gets the sense that the country has derailed,” said Nasos Iliopoulos, a spokesperson for main opposition Syriza party.
In a press conference, the new transport minister, Georgios Gerapetritis, acknowledged big mistakes that took place the night of the crash, which he called an “unprecedented national tragedy, which has scarred us all.”
He said that the government would step up the implementation of a contract for automatic operations and signaling on the railway and a series of measures to improve safety.
Only compounding the challenges for the Mitsotakis government, a European Parliament delegation visiting the country on Wednesday warned that the country faces “very serious threats to the rule of law and fundamental rights.”
The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE), which completed its mission in Athens, cited poor media reporting, threats against journalists, migration policies, slow and ineffective justice as well as police violence.
“Checks and balances, essential for a robust democracy, are under heavy pressure,” the chair of the delegation Sophie in ‘t Veld said.
“Media ownership by a small number of oligarchs negatively impacts media pluralism, resulting in dramatic under-reporting on certain topics. In the aftermath of the train accident, a common statement by Greek journalist associations also highlighted this problem.”
Government officials declined to meet the delegation, citing mourning for the victims of the train crash, while the European People’s Party, which is affiliated with Greece’s New Democracy, has withdrawn from the delegation.
“The EPP has a bad habit, which is that whenever any subject creates problems for them, they run away,” Iratxe García, leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, told POLITICO. “They’ve done it with this mission in Greece or they do it, for example, with human rights urgencies.”
Eddy Wax contributed reporting.