No ordinary referendum in Greece

A Greek referendum is a rare thing in any case: the last one was more than 40 years ago, when the monarchy was abolished. But when Greeks go to the polls today (Sunday) to vote on the terms of international debt relief, it will be a referendum quite unlike any other.

Officially, the vote is on whether or not to approve of the terms offered last week by Greece’s creditors – terms that are apparently no longer on the table. But in a sense the precise terms are beside the point; what voters are really being asked is whether or not they approve of the hardline negotiating strategy of prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his radical-left Syriza party.

Modern governments are not in the habit of asking their citizens for decisions on this sort of question. Syriza and its supporters would attribute that to the establishment’s fear of genuine democracy, and no doubt there is some truth in that. But this week has demonstrated that there are also good reasons for not interrupting a complex international negotiation while a vote can be organised: it spreads confusion and contrary interpretations, and events don’t stand still while ballot papers are being printed.

To support their government, voters, counter-intuitively, need to vote “no”, while a “yes” vote means rolling over to the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Jonathan Haynes, as quoted by the BBC, suggested that the question could be more clearly framed as “Do you want to leave the EU? Vote: Yes if No, And No if Yes.”

But of course the further implications of a vote either way are heavily contested. The creditors argue that a “no” vote will be tantamount to a decision to leave the eurozone; Tsipras, who maintains that he wants to keep Greece on the euro, says it would simply give him a stronger hand to negotiate with. But his negotiating strategy, like the creditors’ proposals, is very much a moving target.

It’s also unclear how the government would deal with a “yes” vote. Finance minister Yanis Varoufkis, a former Australian-based academic and game theorist who seems particularly loathed by the creditors, has threatened to resign rather than agree to the terms. But Tsipras seems to be indicating that he could live with whatever the voters give him.

Last week I suggested that the Greek negotiations were an instance of the game of “Chicken”, and the latest developments bear that out. Each side wants the other to swerve before reaching the cliff, which means convincing them of their own determination not to swerve – even if disaster is the result. Add in a degree of uncertainty as to exactly where the cliff is (and how high it is), and you can see why the leaders’ statements may be a poor guide to their actual intentions.

Even discounting the political rhetoric, the commentary from supporters and opponents of austerity often shows a failure to engage with the opposing arguments. Supporters would rather talk about the need for reform and keeping faith with creditors than about the actual effects of austerity policies, which in Greece at least have been dismal. Opponents would rather talk about the arrogance of the creditors and the anti-democratic nature of key institutions than deal with Syriza’s failure to embark on serious reform.

So Greek voters could be forgiven for being uncertain about the right way to go even if the question was clear, which it certainly is not. Opinion polls initially showed a strong majority for the government’s position (that is, a “no” vote), but the swing in the last few days has been towards the “yes” position, with the two now running neck and neck.

Based on the strength of parties’ votes in the Greek election held less than six months ago, one would expect a “no” majority in the region of 55% to 45%, so the question is how much the creditors’ scare campaign has succeeded in scaling that back.

Polls close at 7pm local time, or 2am Monday in eastern Australia. (If you’re checking the Greek media, “NAI” is yes and “OXI” is no.) Unless it’s extremely close, the result should quickly be apparent. Its full implications, however, may take a lot longer to emerge.


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