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Thessaloniki to vote on water privatisation
Thessaloniki's water company is about to sold to a private mulitnational but referendum organisers hope results of unofficial poll on keeping water public will be heeded
The citizens of Thessaloniki will have the opportunity to participate in a unique experiment in democracy on Sunday, when they will be invited to vote in an unofficial referendum on water privatisation while casting their ballot in the local and regional elections.
As part of the terms of the troika memorandum, in 2011 the government announced its plans to privatise Eyath, the state-managed company that provides the city's 1.5 million inhabitants with water and sanitation services. The denationalisation process is well underway and two multinational companies have made it to the second phase of the tender for the utility.
The referendum is non-binding as the law does not allow for the population to be consulted on government policy through referendums unless they are ratified by presidential decree or an enhanced majority of MPs. But those behind the plebicite hope that the result will send a clear message that Thessalonikians want water to remain in public ownership. They cite the example of 86 cities worldwide that have successfully overturned privatisation and remunicipalised the water supply.
One of the multinationals is Suez Environment, the world’s second largest private water company, which lost its control of much of Paris’ supply when the system was taken back into public ownership in 2010 in an effort to bring down water prices, which had increased 260%. The other is Israeli national water company Mekorot, which some international environmental groups is involved in “discriminatory water policies and practices in Palestine”. Their Greek partners are Aktor, the country’s largest construction company which is closely associated with Yiorgos Bobolas, who also has extensive print and broadcast media interests, and the Apostolopoulos Group, which is active in the private health sector, respectively.
The decision to privatise the city’s water supply has mobilised a broad coalition of groups, including diverse poltiical parties, trade unions and the Orthodox church, in opposition. It is also being supported by the municipalities that make up the city.
Opinion polls show that over 70% of citizens, across different political parties, are against the sale. They feel that public services such as the supply of drinking water should be delivered through a public company as the best guarantee to ensure quality, safe and affordable services under democratic control.
The referendum is being held with the cooperation of the city’s bar association. Monitoring the elections will be an international team of observers from Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden.
One of the groups sending monitors will be the European Federation of Public Service Unions, which hopes that the result of the referendum will force the private companies to rethink coming to Thessaloniki.
"We want Suez Environment to respect the results of the referendum. To do different would taint its image, show that its corporate social responsibility policies are window dressing and its statements of respect for local communities empty. It could face years of local unrest," said Jan Willem Goudriaan of the EPSU.
"If the referendum is positive, the Greek government should stop the privatisation process. With only one bidder left, the Greek people will not get real value and are robbed of their company.”
Polling for water
As the referendum is unofficial, ballot boxes will be set up outside the polling stations so that citizens voting in Sunday’s regional and municipal elections can participate.
Voters will be handed three ballots papers, one stating “yes”, the other “no” and a blank one.
Only those registered in the municipal electoral lists will be allowed vote, just like in regular elections, and will be required to prove their identity.
At the close of the poll at 7pm, all ballot boxes will be taken to Thessaloniki city hall, where they will be counted and the result declared.
In March, a petition containing 1,884,790 signatures from every EU state was presented to the European Commission, calling on it to recognise and implement the right to water and sanitation for all in EU legislation. The Right2Water petition was the first pan-European Union campaign to achieve European Citizens’ Initiative status, meaning the commission must consider the demands of the petitioners.
Greece was one of the 13 EU countries to exceed the required minimum of signatures necessary to make the petition valid. A citizens' initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least seven out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those seven member states.