The government’s efforts to deflect responsibility for the deadly collision have failed to contain public outrage.
A passenger train with 350 people on board, most of them university students, collided with a cargo train near the city of Larissa in central Greece on February 28th, in the country’s deadliest rail disaster. Carriages burst into flames, the heat reaching 1,300 degrees Celsius. Many family members had to give DNA to identify their loved ones among the 57 who died.
The conservative prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, offered his condolences, initially describing the crash in an address to the nation as a ‘tragic human error’. The government pinned responsibility on the local stationmaster, who was charged with negligent homicide. This absolved it from admitting accountability for negligence of the rail network.
Rail unions have however previously raised numerous grave concerns about lack of safety measures and the poor management of the system. Nor was it long before the government’s narrative was questioned by journalists and on ‘social media’. Last Thursday Mitsotakis shared a post apologising for the crash and doing a U-turn—stating ‘we cannot, we don’t want to, we must not hide behind a series of human errors’.
A few days before the disaster, the transport minister, Kostas Karamanlis, had insisted the railway system was safe, describing it as ‘a shame’ that the opposition should even raise this question in parliament. He resigned, as a ‘gesture of respect’, in the aftermath of the crash. Yet on Monday of last week the government spokesperson, Giannis Oikonomou, said Karamanlis would run again in the parliamentary elections due in a few months.
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On March 1st Mitsotakis also announced the formation of an expert committee to investigate the causes of the crash. The decision was strongly criticised: opposition parties warned that the investigation would interfere with judicial procedures, occluding the government’s responsibility ahead of the elections.
MPs from the ruling New Democracy party have found themselves in uncharted waters, as traditionally pro-government media have put them in the spotlight over the official response to the crash. Adonis Georgiadis, minister for development and investment and vice-president of the party, sought to defend Karamanlis on television, saying disclosure of safety problems in the rail network would have discouraged travellers from buying tickets.
While the government’s communications system seems paralysed, citizens have been sending powerful messages of unity. Hours after the trains collided, hundreds rushed to Larissa’s main square to donate blood for the victims.
Grief and anger mobilised thousands in Athens and Thessaloniki who protested against the government’s lack of accountability and transparency. In Athens, young people and trade union members chanted ‘their profits, our dead’ in a rally at Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament.
The government sent riot police to a peaceful sit-in at a train station in Thessaloniki, while in Athens police fired tear gas and stun grenades to break up non-violent protests. Footage of officers instigating violence against protesters and throwing tear-gas canisters at the entrance of Omonia underground station in central Athens flooded Twitter.
Sending officers to attack protesters only widened the gulf which has opened between the neoliberal government and the citizenry. Last Wednesday, there was a nationwide 24-hour general strike. Tens of thousands took to the streets in major cities in Greece, asking the government to take responsibility for the disaster. A further strike is planned for Thursday.
Mitsotakis’ response sits between deflection, self-defence and disrespect. His government’s efforts to depoliticise the tragedy and deny responsibility have backfired. It was politics that caused it and it is politics that can prevent such a disaster from happening again.
Ifigenia Moumtzi is a member of the European Youth Parliament and digital content officer at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. She has worked as a freelance news correspondent for the Greek channels Alpha TV and Mega TV and is a contributing editor for Efsyn.gr.
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