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.