News

I Spent An Extremely Stressful Night in the Greek Parliament

Tension and disappointment dominated the Greek parliament as it prepared to vote on a set of austerity measures so tough, they'd have Thatcher dancing in her grave.

av Panagiotis Maidis; Words: Antonis Diniakos
2015 07 17, 6:35am

Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Tsipras

More from the Greek Crisis:

Austerity is Devastating Greece's Mental Health
What Greece's "No" Vote Means for Europe
Greece Has a Long History of Debt

Arriving at the entrance of the Greek Parliament, my gaze immediately fell upon an elderly gentleman who was dressed rather curiously considering the occasion: on his right foot he wore a tsarouhi (a traditional handmade shoe adorned with a pom-pom) and on his left foot, a trainer with thick stripes. He had a huge picture of Georgios Karaiskakis pinned to the lapel of his white shirt. Karaiskakis is a Greek military commander from the 1821 Greek War of Independence – he is to the Greeks what William Wallace is to the Scots.

The security guards tried their best to remove the old man. "Call the President of the Parliament. Call Mrs. Konstantopoulou now! Tell her that her teacher is looking for her," he yelled, but to no avail.

"Stand to the side, sir. You cannot enter," they said as they parked him to the right so that all the stressed government officials and international journalists could walk past.

Greece loves a good character, but at that moment, an elderly gentleman, dressed like an amalgamation of a footballer and a presidential guard, fell somewhere short of the mark. The Greek Parliament seemed chaotic enough as they prepared for what could easily be described as the most critical vote in decades – a vote on austerity measures so tough that they'd have Thatcher dancing in her grave.

Some Syriza MPs publicly denounced the agreement that the head of their own party, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had negotiated before the parliamentary meeting. The evening of 15th of July was set to go down in history as the beginning of a new age of turmoil in an already embattled Greece.

My head full of unpleasant scenarios, I passed through the usual security checks and entered the intimidating Greek Parliament – an elegant concrete ode to urban classicism. Until the monarchy was deemed outdated, it had served as a base of kings. Now, it would play host to the next act of Greece's tragedy.

Minister of the Interior and Administrative Reconstruction, Nikos Voutsis

Walking towards the pressroom, I took a moment to stand in the hallway and stare at a portrait of Rigas Feraios, leader of the Greek Enlightenment, as well as Dionysios Solomos, Greece's national poet. Both works were crafted by Dimitris Mytaras, one of the most influential contemporary Greek artists.

Entering the pressroom, I encountered chaos; fingers hammered away at keyboards, while information, speculative scenarios and estimates were screamed down mobile phones. Most media outlets seemed to be there – it was obvious that the world was watching Greece. I knew that the measures demanded by Brussels would be voted in – it was a given seeing as it had support from so many parties. What I was mostly concerned with was how much Syriza would bleed on this critical night. People were talking about a mutiny of up to 40 members, while others predicted much lower numbers. But they still predicted it a split.

The media room stressed me out, so I decided to take a walk around the building. I met a friend, who was currently working as a fixer for the Washington Post. He stood with two American journalists as they took statements from Gerasimos Giakoumatos, a New Democracy MP and a favourite of daily newspaper political gossip columns. It struck me that two journalists from the paper that broke the Watergate scandal and won a Pulitzer Prize had travelled thousands of miles across the Atlantic to take statements from Gerasimos Giakoumatos. People were taking this seriously.

In the lounge, I queued for a bottle of water behind To Potami MP Gregory Psarianos. He was decked out in the ivory waistcoat that he's famous for never taking off. He stood deeply engaged in conversation with Communist Party MP, Thanasis Pafilis. Around the room, there seemed to be similar small congregations of Greek MPs, all having their own little arguments.

The lounge is notorious for being a venue of endless micro-political discussion and that certainly rang true more than ever. At the far end of the room, the government ministers, Panagiotis Lafazanis and Dimitris Stratoulis, as well as Syriza MP Thanasis Petrakos and Stathis Leoutsakos, had set up their own low-key post – all eyes were aimed at them. All four had made it clear that they planned on voting "No". The fact that Panagiotis Lafazanis neurotically fiddled with his komboloi – also known as worry beads – while pacing up and down the corridors hinted at what was coming next.

The session began at 8:30PM, so I ran upstairs to secure a good place in the journalist gallery, which was already packed. Finally, the time had come for the vote. The speakers took to the podium one by one. The discussion was chaired by the Parliament Vice-President, Alexis Mitropoulos. The air in the room was thick with tension. It was in every look and every word. "On Monday morning, I experienced the most difficult time of my life. I made a decision that will be with me for the rest of my life," said Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos in an emotional speech.

All of the speeches that followed were equally charged. Evangelos Venizelos exchanged deadly glances with Deputy Parliamentary President, Alexis Mitropoulos – it was like something out of a western. The drama peaked when Syriza MP and Speaker of the Parliament Zoi Konstantopoulou took the floor for her highly anticipated speech. Amongst other things, she said that it was "a black day for the Greek parliament" and that "the parliament would within 2.5 hours ratify an agreement that crushes the Greek people." Nobody was in doubt that she would strongly oppose the "Yes" line.

Paradoxically, the leader of far-right party ANEL, Panos Kammenos, dropped the anti-memorandum stance that he's been brandishing for years and, instead, gave the green light for the country's third memorandum. The Prime Minister of Greece, Alexander Tsipras took the floor and laid his cards out on the table: "I bear the responsibility for this looted society."

Inside the Greek Parliament

Slowly, the "Yes" and "No" votes were recorded one by one. When former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis voted "No", some people started booing. The real highlight was when Syriza MP, Yannis Michelogiannakis – a man revered as an anti–memorandum superhero – voted "Yes", even though he made very clear that he wanted no more memoranda. Finally, the agreement was voted through: 229 MPs said "Yes", 64 "No", six "Present" and Alexandra Tsanaka of Syriza remained absent.

The Prime Minister immediately left for his office following the plenary. A lot had changed in only a few hours: On the one hand, he had experienced dozens of his comrades cheering his speech on and later turning around and voting against the agreement that he had brought before the parliament. It's certain that the cohesion of Syriza has been shaken for good. A broad reshuffling is clearly only a matter of time. Many things are uncertain right now but one thing is for sure – the Greek people will continue their voyage into recession for yet another summer.

Zoi Konstantopouloi, President of the Hellenic Parliament

Finance Minister, Euclid Tsakalotos

Syriza MP and Former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis (left)

Syriza MP, Rachel Makri

Alexander Tsipras leaving the Parliament

Greek Parliament

Golden Dawn MPs

President of New Democracy, Evangelos Meimarakas

Alexander Tsipras delivering his speech