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Greece train crash: Protesters rage at political system

Florian Schmitz in Thessaloniki
March 14, 2023

After the deadly train crash in Central Greece, grief has turned into rage against governments past and present. With elections approaching, the current administration is engaging in damage control.

Protesters take part in a demonstration in Thessaloniki following the fatal collision of two trains near the city of Larissa, March 8, 2023
Demonstrators in Thessaloniki on March 8 voiced their anger at successive governments for their decades-long neglect of the railway systemImage: Murad Sezer/REUTERS

"57 dead" is printed in blood-red ink on a sticker one demonstrator has stuck to her sweater in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. It refers to the number of people killed in the devastating crash that occurred when two trains traveling at top speed collided head-on just outside the village of Tempi near the city of Larissa on the evening of February 28.

The 58-year-old woman with the sticker is one of hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in more than 50 towns and cities across Greece on March 8 to vent their anger.

For her and the 20,000 other people crowded into downtown Thessaloniki, this tragedy is evidence of a complete political failure: "It shows that all those who govern and have governed do not have our welfare at heart, just their own profit. This crime says it all."

Calls for justice in Greece after train crash

"Crime" is a word that appears on a lot of placards and banners at the protests; "murderers" is another. The protests are directed against not only the current government, but also those that preceded it. People of all ages and political persuasions protested side by side on March 8 and agreed about one thing, namely that the entire political system must accept responsibility for the victims of the crash.

Disappointed hopes in the Greek government

The train crash seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back. With elections on the horizon, the anger of the people couldn't come at a worse time for the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

There is nothing left of the promises of progress and modernization that swept Mitsotakis to power in the summer of 2019. The hopes many Greeks pinned on his premiership have now given way to outrage and disappointment.

Chronically underfunded rails

These days, it is not politicians who are being applauded, but trade unionists such as Thodoris Varidakis. He is responsible for train maintenance at the privatized Greek train company Hellenic Train and has for years been drawing attention to what he says is the dreadful state of affairs in the sector.

Mechanic and trade unionist Thodoris Varidakis in a crowd in Thessaloniki
Trade unionist Thodoris Varidakis, a mechanic at the privatized railway company Hellenic Train, has been drawing attention to the neglect of Greek railways for yearsImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

At last, people are listening. When he takes to the podium, he speaks of the many failings and omissions he believes show that cost-cutting meant more to his employers than safety. Varidakis says that the company is chronically underfunded and understaffed. Everyone knew it, he told DW, but no one did anything about it.

He dismisses the political gestures made by the government in Athens in the wake of the accident as farcical: "It's not enough for the government to react with the resignation of a minister. On the day after the accident, the prime minister pointed the finger at the station master and blamed him," he says angrily.

Accusations of collective political failure

Thodoris Varidakis stresses that no ruling party from the past 20 years can wash its hands of the accident that killed 57 people near Tempi. He says that not only the ruling Nea Dimokratia, but also the social-democratic PASOK and the left-wing alliance led by former PM Alexis Tsipras did not take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the transport system.

A woman holds up a placard that reads 'Call me when (if) you arrive' at a protest in Thessaloniki, Greece, March 8, 2023
"Call me when (if) you arrive." This text message, which was sent to one of the crash victims, is symbolic of the train crash near Larissa on February 28Image: Florian Schmitz/DW

"Competitiveness comes before safety and health," says Varidakis, who warns that the safety of other means of transport — such as buses, planes and ships — has also been neglected.

Revelations about the poor state of the railways

Almost every day, there are revelations in Greek media about the catastrophic state of the railway system. The conservative newspaper Kathimerini recently reported on errors made during the modernization of the automated signal and operating system, which have been known since 2018.

The modern safety systems, which have long been installed but not in operation on the line on which the collision occurred, are used to identify human error and prevent negative consequences. Kathimerini concluded that if the system had been correctly implemented, there would have been no fatalities. It also noted that successive governments were indifferent to the problem.

No faith in the state's willingness to act

For many in Greece, the accident is symbolic of mismanagement and a series of wrong decisions made by a political elite that has, at best, been putting plasters on many of the country's day-to-day problems.

Protesters and police at a demonstration in Athens, Greece, March 8, 2023
Some of the protests in Greece on March 8, such as this one in Athens, turned violent, with demonstrators clashing with policeImage: Alexandros Avramidis/REUTERS

Bad roads, old buses, electricity grids at breaking point: Most people in Greece grudgingly accept these things while having no faith that the state will do anything about them. The train crash near Tempi seems to have stirred the country from its collective resignation. The death of 57 people cannot simply be airbrushed from the list of political failures.

'I don't feel safe'

"I don't feel safe in my own country," says 20-year-old student Alexia Athanasiou from Larissa. In a video doing the rounds on social media, she says: "We are all to blame for repeatedly electing the same people who are destroying the country. They are making me hate my own country."

A woman at a demonstration in Thessaloniki holds up a placard that reads "Murderers"
Anger spills out onto the streets of Thessaloniki: This woman is holding up a placard that reads "Murderers"Image: Murad Sezer/REUTERS

Athanasiou told DW that many of the victims were students. "They're killing our future," she says. "How can it be that governments have reduced this country to this state?" Yet, despite all this, she doesn't want to lose faith in democracy. She will be voting for the first time in the upcoming election and hopes to be able to change something that way.

Impact on the election

A date for this year's election has yet to be set. While there was initially talk of April 9, the expectation is now that the election will be held on May 21 or July 2.

According to the first opinion polls since the crash, support for Mitsotakis's party is down just under three percentage points, dropping below 30%. SYRIZA, led by Tsipras, has made no gains and stays at 25%.

Political adviser Wolfango Piccoli, who specializes in risk and crisis management, says Mitsotakis has lost credibility. "The government has mismanaged the crisis from the start, pointing the finger towards human error. Then we saw the resignation of the transport minister, but not much more than that. I think they misread public opinion," he says.

Piccoli says the prime minister is backpedaling. "Now Mitsotakis is trying to make up for these shortcomings, apologizing on the social media, promising investigations, conducted by a committee created by the former minister of transport, without consulting anybody, not even the opposition," he says.

Piccoli says the elections will present a major challenge to Mitsotakis. "For the government, the real challenge is that elections are coming," he says. "The concern is that they need to placate this sense of anger, but, at the same time, they need to be very careful not to expose themselves too much. They are in a very tight space."

This article was originally written in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece