Asking the “right” question: the use of referenda in political contest

The birthplace of democracy lacks precedence with direct suffrage.  The last time Greeks were directly asked for their opinion was a referendum that abolished the monarchy, a full 40 years ago.  When former PM George Papandreou tried to put the question of international debt restructuring to a referendum, his own party and Greece’s EU partners called him irresponsible.  He was summarily deposed.

There is no place for referenda in a state where the political elite sees its role as a manager of political sentiment and electoral contest is invariably populist.  The people have been deemed immature to be asked if they would like to be in the EEC, the EU, Schengen, NATO or adopt the euro.  Greek citizens have never before been included in important decisions of state.  Why now?

I cannot escape the conclusion that this referendum is a smokescreen.  Partly to cover the incompetence of this and previous negotiating teams and partly to create an alibi.  It is evident that the present government has reached an impasse.  The referendum acts as forward absolution for errors they are likely to commit.  As most acts of political manipulation it poses a question for which there is no rational answer.  Voters are therefore forced to make an emotional decision.  If the voter believes this is an honest government they might vote no, if the government is seen as incompetent they might vote yes.  And again, if they believe the lenders are monomaniac neoliberals they might vote no, or if they believe that the current government is ideologically opposed to the EU they might vote yes.  At the end, the arguments political commentators give for citizen preferences have very little to do with reason.  The choice is described in emotional binary terms: in or out of the EU; in or out of the euro; jobs versus depression; pensions versus poverty; a welfare state versus privatisation. But of course all these “false dichotomies” have nothing to do with the referendum question.  Which also has very little to do with the real choices Greece is facing.

Interestingly Greek intellectuals of the centre-left are universal in their endorsement of a yes vote as they do not trust this government, while a number of international commentators, including Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have endorsed a no.  From the perspective of an international Keynesian intellectual who considers the performance of Greek governments to be constant, it makes sense to shake the tree of neo-liberal complacency.  The policies of budget surpluses and forced contraction at a time of recession are monumentally flawed.  Particularly for an economy that has always been on the EU growth periphery, has structural inefficiencies and a shambolic administration.  Krugman’s assumption that the government may be responding to a “reverse Corleone”, an offer one cannot accept, does not seem relevant to me.  After promising to tear-up previous agreements this government has spent six months consistently undermining domestic business confidence, demolishing international credibility and squandering what little good will other negotiators had towards Greece.

I conclude that this is a government that is using a referendum to deflect accountability, not one that attempts to gauge the will of the people so as to guide its future actions.

2 thoughts on “Asking the “right” question: the use of referenda in political contest

  1. Impressive piece. But I don’t get how the fact that the government failed to keep electoral promises leads to the conclusion that now the government is using the referendum to defect accountability.
    I have a different interpretation (based of course on the media I have been exposed to). The failure to meet the electoral promises could follow from the goodwill of the government to meet the creditors’ demand (somewhere beyond halfway). The use of the referendum, rightly poses the decision on whether to accept the Troika’s request, to the people. Note that the issue is not really whether to follow or not austerity. As far as I understand, the government is prepared to continue with sacrifices. But what they ask is a restructuring of the debt. Economic sacrifices without restructuring of the debt are useless. The debt structure of Greece has been deemed unsustainable by IMF.

  2. I agree that making further economic sacrifices without debt restructuring is meaningless. I also think restructuring without engaging in serious administrative reforms is meaningless. In simple terms the current government has played bad politics against bad economics. But their signals (statements and actions) aimed at their domestic political clientèle contradict any signals to its foreign partnerts for administrative restructuring. Their rallying cry to honour and pride is what I consider a smokescreen. This is populism 101.

    My argument is that their lack of preparedness to negotiate was repackaged as a dismissal of the terms of reference of the creditors. But they went further, they tried to convince the creditor bankers of their evil ways. Instead of presenting a credible growth policy based on some form of proposal for debt restructuring, Varoufakis and Tsipras lost credibility by making long-winded political statements on the faults of capitalism. Their choice of venue (say an EU finance ministers meeting) tells me that they believed they could play Greek politics at the EU arena. This is what they would do in Greek Parliament. Such a speech would be ignored in Greece if a politician lacks adequate MP support and would get media attention when it purports to supplant a new tax law (of which I have lost count this year). It is as if in a football tournament the Greek team decided to play basketball, and all other teams have to now change their game. A tall order when they have not demonstrated any capacity for change. The only ones cheering from the sides are Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela. Hardly the power brokers of world finance or the paragons of administrative efficiency.

    The people of Greece were told that supporting a NO vote would allow them to regain their pride, to hold their head high and strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations. Such statements immediately get my anti-populist defences up. In practice a NO vote, to all European and international commentators, to all media outlets and analysts was taken to mean resistance to structural change, and demonstrated the will of the Greeks to exit the Eurozone. In all, as was immediately evident it left the Greek government in a weaker negotiating position, if it aims to negotiate. How can that dis-juncture be possible if the Greek government elite is presenting facts to the people? I conclude that there are “framing” distortions in the Greek government rhetoric. I judge this to be about ideological politicking and not about improving the lot of the average person or those hardest hit by the recession. The logic goes: We believe it, it is therefore true and if we can get 1% of the EU population to buy it, the 99% should convert to our view. The people have spoken. A nice and ambiguous Greek word was often used to describe the late Andreas Papandreou of whom Tsipras is a rightful heir: laoplanos. A people charmer or people deceiver: choice of slant depends on whether you believe the politician is honest.

    To conclude I accept that maybe I am cynical, since I was expecting more from a group of (mostly) intelligent people in government. To their credit most in Syriza are not professional politicians after power and money. But their missmanagement has succeded in making professional politicians look good. I claim that their handicap is their ideological blinders that do not let them do what is best for the country and those hit hardest by recession but what they perceive as “right”.

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