How democratic is the Greek referendum?

Picture by PowderPhotograpy on flickr.

Picture by PowderPhotograpy on flickr.

In a blog post in 2013, questioning whether there was a case against citizen engagement, Nathaniel Heller provoked: “Would TARP have worked had US policymakers taken the time to poll a million Americans via SMS to solicit their opinions on whether it was a good idea? I doubt it.”

Two years later and we are faced with a similar situation: in the light of current circumstances, how appropriate is the Greek referendum? Alexander Trechsel, a professor at the European University Institute and one of the major experts when the issue is direct democracy, recently published an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine giving four reasons as to why this referendum is a bad idea. With Alexander’s permission, I am re-posting the English version of his article:

It could hardly get any more dramatic in the negotiations between the EU and the Greek government. The clock is ticking and if no solution can be found during this very week a Southern European country, member of the Eurozone, will go bankrupt – with unforeseeable consequences for Greek citizens, but also the rest of Europe. This Tuesday at midnight, a first deadline has expired, with Greece not having paid its dues to the IMF. Clearly, things do not look well.

Until now, this “Greek drama” was staged involving institutions and their representatives: the European Commission, the IMF, ECB, the Greek government, Alexis Tsipras, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Jean-Claude Juncker, Christine Lagarde, Mario Draghi as well as a series of finance ministers and experts. The cast was complex, but it fit onto a list no longer than a few pages. With the Greek government’s surprising decision to put the final offer by the creditors – the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF – to a referendum vote, the very logic of the play has changed. It looks as if it will now be up to a majority of Greek citizens to decide on the fate of their country, presumably in a binary yes-no vote, on a question that has yet to be formulated and on an offer that might have expired by the time the vote takes place. At first sight this seems to be a dignified process for the country where, after all, democracy was invented. A more careful look, however, unveils a rather less glorious image. Indeed, there are at least four fundamental problems that the proposed “people’s verdict” may give rise to.

First, modern Greece totally lacks any referendum experience. The last time Greek voters were called upon expressing themselves at the polls other than in elections was over 40 years ago, in 1974, when the country transitioned to democracy and when a popular majority decided to give itself a Republic rather than a Monarchy for its future form of government. Since then, and unlike in most other countries in Europe, direct democracy at the national level remained inexistent. It was only with the economic crisis and the confrontation with creditors over the bailout in 2011 that then-Prime-minister George Papandreou took the referendum threat out of his hat. In his view, creditors would simply be obliged to respect the will of the Greek people. It did not come that far – Papandreou had to step down before any referendum was held. Today, this very referendum threat is once again made by Alexis Tsipras, more concretely, though, with a date fixed for this coming Sunday, July 5. In less than a week a citizenry that could not take any yes-no choice in over 40 years is now supposed to “decide” on the future of its country. In no other, modern direct democratic process are citizens given so little time to gather and process the necessary information about the proposal at stake, to debate about it and allow for an informed public opinion to emerge, let alone take a far-reaching decision. And these are necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for a referendum process to be truly democratic. Today, this very point was made in Strasbourg, by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Second, Greek citizens are called upon voting in favor or against an offer by a set of external actors to keep the country solvable and to get its economy a financial boost through future investments. It is therefore not even an agreement between the Greek government and, say, another government or an international organization that is at stake, but simply a plan decided upon outside of and independently from Greece. This is very different from international treaty referendums, such as those existing in Switzerland, Ireland or Denmark, in which respective governments defend the negotiated agreements and campaign in favor of the latter. In the coming days, however, the main actors defending a “yes” in the Greek referendum process will be either foreign creditors or – maybe – the Greek opposition. This, in turn, will result in a “them” against “us” campaign, which will give nationalistic arguments the upper hand over a sober discussion of pros and cons of the proposed offer – hardly the ingredients for a mature, democratic decision at the polls.

Third, the referendum will mix up direct with representative democracy. Let us imagine a “yes” coming out of the ballot boxes. In such a scenario the government of Alexis Tsipras would possibly have to step down and new elections would have to be called upon. And what if Greek voters say “no”? In this case, not only will the country most likely go bankrupt, it will also lead to Greece’s exit from the Euro. The consequences for the Greek people would be devastating and the fate of a government having actively led the campaign towards this outcome might become rapidly sealed. In other words: whatever the choice of the voters, it will be a choice about policy as much as about government itself. And the process could well end up in an own-goal, similar to the “suicide by referendum” committed by Pinochet in Chile and de Gaulle in France. For voters, however, this does not make things easier, as they will be voting both on the plan to save Greece from insolvency and on Alexis Tsipras’ government.

Fourth, and this is possibly the worst aspect of the entire drama, calling this referendum is a desperate attempt of shifting governmental responsibility to the people as a whole. Here is a government that is unable to reach an agreement with creditors to save its country from chaos. Instead of going down in history as a political failure, this government now shifts the burden onto the citizens, hoping for them to chime into the “us” and “them” theme alongside its representatives. While the threat of a referendum may be a powerful tool during negotiations, once the cards are on the table it does hardly serve any other purpose than to let a government hide behind an alleged popular will, forged in no time and in a heated climate of nationalistic accusations. Not to be able to find an agreement in negotiations may be seen as a failure – however, to blame one’s own citizenry for the outcome, because it was its “choice” at the polls, may be seen as outright cowardice.

The only conclusion one can draw from these observations is that on July 5, Greek voters should not be called to the polls. Out of democratic respect for its citizens the government in Athens should cancel this sordid referendum process – the earlier the better.

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