Greek referendum: A card in what game?

There were many distressing aspects to the whole situation this week with the bailout agreement for Greece, the sudden call for a referendum, the just-as-sudden cancellation of the referendum, and the ideas everyone had about what the referendum play could have meant.

What was going on? Did Europe scold Greece like a teen that spent the grocery money on mobile apps? Did the Greek Prime Minister stand up to Big Lending Rating Finance and remember The People? Where does the win go: democracy, politics, finance or scapegoating?

Some commentators suggested Prime Minister George Papandreou may have been attempting to get Europe to “sweeten the deal”, or renegotiate the latest debt agreement. Others suggested that he remembered democracy and was giving the Greek people an opportunity to make the decision.

After two years of austerity measures under EU and IMF loans, which the Greek people did not have the opportunity to vote on, the referendum struck many people as a joke at best, and, at worst, a shameful move by government to dump its responsibilities on the people after digging the country into a hole.

The referendum idea was cancelled, and it now seems that Papandreou may have done this to threaten opposition Nea Democratia leader, Antonis Samaras, to step up to his responsibilities, and get the opposition to support the austerity measures. This sounds like a bold move.  However, Samaras, in the middle of the crisis this June refused to form a coalition government at Papandreou’s invitation, preferring instead to ask the prime minister to step down and insisting on elections (though now he is roaringly insisting on a national unity government, followed by elections – again, if Papandreou steps down). Given all this, I suppose it would not be too shocking if we later found out Papandreou’s referendum move was indeed an attempt to get the opposition to become more constructive, even knowing he would have to step down.  Maybe Papandreou knows his former roommate better than anyone.

Right now, social media is blowing up with Greeks expressing their desire to see Papandreou step down. While their sentiment may be justified, it is easy to focus frustration on an individual leader, even after months of protesting against all their politicians. Lest we forget: what do you call it when politicians of a ruling party and an opposition party play politics in the middle of a crisis, even though both their parties are polling at around 20 percent, and thousands of citizens are outside the parliament, screaming at them that they are all guilty of devastating the country? Many would call this a bitter joke. (Note: the percentages may be different, but this is a question for those of us living in the U.S. as well.)

If we are going to wonder about who is doing the most damage to democracy, we have to look at both Greek leaders and European leaders. After the Greek prime minister announced a referendum on whether to accept the debt agreement, EU leaders insisted on the referendum question being ‘stay in EU or leave EU’ when there has been NO serious dialogue in Greece on this issue and polls show that 70 percent of Greeks do NOT want to leave the EU. And they set the date for December 4, leaving no time for a real debate. This is not a minor point.  This is absolutely critical.  A referendum alone is not democracy. A referendum is one part of a process.  If you spring a referendum on people without facilitating an informed debate process, you are simply manipulating and insulting those people, and they would be right to believe that you are hiding something.  Whether EU leaders were sincere or also calling Papandreou’s bluff, it is a destructive message to send throughout a union of democracies and to the rest of the world.

This week’s events may be yet another sign that the EU is speeding up its own destruction process. All along this crisis was not ’caused by’ or ‘all about’ Greece. But if EU leaders are in denial and prefer setting up a scapegoat to avoid discussing their real problems, fine, I guess they are more knowledgeable than me.

I have no idea what to think at this point about the referendum or the national unity option, and I will not pretend to be an expert. But these are issues that I saw in this week’s events that concern me.

The one thing I can say is that we may be missing one of the biggest lessons that comes out of the events involving Greece, a lesson which will be important to learn as the crisis spreads to more countries:

Throughout this economic crisis, the bailouts and the austerity measures imposed with those bailouts have meant that the priority reforms that have needed to take place in Greece for decades now – reforming the justice system and anti-corruption institutions to introduce some transparency and accountability to the overall system – have remained on the sideline.

These are the issues that have broken people’s patience and all trust in their political leaders across the spectrum.

These are the reforms that have fueled the demonstrations.

But these are not the reforms that concern European leaders. EU and IMF involvement in the economics of the country seems to have just added yet another wall between citizens’ demands and any reform attempt in the institutions that would ensure the austerity measures were implemented in a fair manner, at a time when the economic crisis could have been an opportunity to propel these critical changes. This burden for a democratic system that does not work in critical areas is now on international shoulders, not just the shoulders of Greek politicians or Greek society.

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One Response to Greek referendum: A card in what game?

  1. Pingback: Greek elections and governance: Debating the rules, selecting the players, but no referee in sight « New Diaspora. New Dialogue.

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