The Greek Referendum: Democracy and Dignity on the Balance

The Greek Referendum: Democracy and Dignity on the Balance


4 July 2015| Joshua Tartakovsky


Tomorrow Greeks will be voting in a referendum on their economic future, in an expression of direct democracy that has been greeted with condescension, ridicule and fear by leaders of the Eurogroup, the European Commission and Germany and which is likely to reverberate throughout Europe.

It did not have to be this way. Throughout its negotiations on the economic future of the country and a new memoranda, the Greek government was willing to take immense steps to satisfy the demands of the Institutions.

Although the current austerity program provides no genuine economic growth nor an end to the recession, the Greek government continued to negotiate with the Troika and made various concessions in nearly every area, conceding to at least 70% of the demands. It did so due to its belief that it is part of European community and since it opposed the fragmentation of Europe.
Most recently, the government agreed make cuts in pensions and raise VAT, although pensions were already sliced several times due to the demands of the Troika. Wages declined by 30% since the first bail-out.

Despite the difficult economic conditions, ever since its election six months ago, the Greek government did not once hint at the possibility of leaving the Euro nor did it publicly abandon its deeply-held belief that its economic future is inside the European Union. It did not make public pleas to the BRICS, more specifically to Russia and China, on leaving the EU and forming a new alliance, therefore weakening their position in negotiation with the Troika.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, all this was not enough. She insisted on a complete surrender. While Tsipras proposed to pay 8 billion Euro, by raising taxes and cutting on pensions, Merkel insisted on 12 billion Euro, in a country where the public health has been in a free fall and where a third of the population is impoverished.  In the mean time, pensioners angrily protested opposing the cuts. Despite Greece’s attempts at a compromise,  it was presented with an ultimatum.  Tsipras decided to go for a national referendum. He was willing to negotiate in good faith and he was willing to make compromises, even very large ones. But he was not willing to be humiliated. Tsipras urged the public to vote No (“Oxi”) to the current austerity proposals of the Troika. Shocked European leaders responded by dismissal and fear, while Greece was cut off from financial liquidity in retaliation.

Several days after the referendum was announced, Prime Minister Tsipras sent a letter arguing that if several compromises can be made, he would call off the referendum. Merkel dismissed the plea, saying negotiations will resume only after the referendum. Such an approach indicates a patronizing attitude which does not fully consider the legitimate demands of the other.

The unelected leader of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, initially dismissed the referendum as “legally invalid” since it would take place after the current program expired.  Yet most recently, the IMF went on to change its tune and argued that the current austerity plan is unsustainable. The IMF, to which Greece failed to pay most recently, may be concerned about the consequences of a Greek vote against austerity which may turn the tide against the neoliberal financial institutions, unravel the Eurozone and diminish the reverence by which the IMF is held. Washington too must be concerned too about its potential loss of Greece as a member of the Western alliance, and perhaps it expressed its concerns via the IMF. Germany, however, remains unrepentant.

Germany’s leaders may have forgotten a basic rule about many Greeks. Greeks tend to negotiate in good faith, and generally are willing to make compromises. But they do not accept being outright humiliated and pushed down to the floor. There comes a time when enough was enough.  In contrary to Merkel, the Left German Party Die Linke has shown solidarity with Greece and campaigned for a No vote.

However, while in the first several days following the announcement of the referendum by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a clear majority seemed to emerge for the No (“Oxi”) vote to the current plan of austerity, in recent days the gap with the pro-austerity Yes (“Nai”) vote, appears to be narrowing.

What has changed? Has the economy improved? Have Greeks realized the logic of the Troika’s demands?

No. The economy has only deteriorated. The ECB in a punitive measure blocked off the flow of cash to the debt stricken country, which forced the government to impose capital controls by limiting the withdrawal of cash by citizens.

What has taken place was an orchestrated, panic-based, campaign to draw fear among Greeks regarding the dangers of asserting their independence.

The local oligarchy has worked hard to push for a Yes vote. The vast majority of local Greek newspapers, owned by the same oligarchs has called for a Yes vote.  The television channels have engaged in a non-stop outflow of incitement against the Greek government. Most recently, bakeries have intentionally been closed to prevent the sale of bread to the public.

The goal of the Yes campaign, then, is not to provide a hopeful alternative, but to terrorize the population into submission. A campaign encouraged by neoliberal financial actors in Europe and by the local oligarchy at home.

Those who may be voting for a Yes to the Troika, are mostly pensioners and small business holders who are concerned about the immediate outcome. Those who are voting No, which appears to be, for now, the small majority although all outcomes are possible, are those who want to believe that there must be another way and refuse to be humiliated and subjugated.

The immense crowds at Syntagma Square in Athens yesterday were a defiant reaction from below to the attempts to the heavily financed attempts to draw fear into the population by scaring it into submission.

Prime Minister Tsipras, who made his way on foot unaccompanied by guards from his office in Maximou to Syntagma, was embraced by an emotional crowd while guards had to make room to allow him to pass. Varoufakis too was hugged and cheered on. The sense was that no matter what, the crowd will be determined to protect its independence and its dignity. Either way, we have already won, said Tsipras.

The vote tomorrow will probably be very close, and it is not evident that the Oxi camp will win, in which case the government may resign. The right of Greeks to vote on a question pertaining to their future has been challenged by the neoliberal financial forces. In any case, the contradiction between democracy and neoliberal economics has been made  increasingly clear, as the fluidity of funds has been cut off with European elites hoping for a regime change in Greece.

Yet if history is to serve as a guide, and based on the current trajectory, is appears more likely that the Oxi vote will have a majority, even if a small one.

On the 28th of October, 1940, the Greek dictator Metaxas, was provided with an ultimatum by fascist Italy that had already conquered Albania. Greece must become an Italian protectorate and join the war effort.  Apparently, Metaxas immediately responded with a resounding Oxi (No.)  In the following day, masses of outraged Greeks gathered in the streets to express their outright opposition to the ultimatum.   Despite the might displayed by the fascist forces, the Greeks refused to surrender  and defiantly proclaimed Oxi. Honor was valued more than appeasing an oppressor intent on subjugation. The 28th of October was turned into a national holiday.

Now Greece is facing an economic blackmail, a financial siege, threats from the European power holders and mockery by fearful elites. How will they respond? Will the concerns about the present override facts regarding the futility of austerity and the humiliation presented by the ultimatum, or will Greeks vote No despite the immense dangers and fears of the unknown?

If history is to serve as a guide, the Greeks will once again vote Oxi, insisting on basic dignity, even if bread is gone. Enough is enough. Humiliation is unacceptable.

Yet even if the Yes vote gains the majority, the Tsipras government has maintained its dignity by refusing to be humiliated and insisting on direct democracy, a possibility that is viewed in panic by the unelected European institutions.

Either way, the vote will probably be close.

But the sense of defiance in Syntagma on Friday provides the impression that Greeks will vote No, regardless of the cost. Enough is enough. With austerity the option on the one hand, and economic blackmail on the other, they have not much to lose. They will probablyl vote Oxi to austerity and to blackmail, to subjugation and humiliation.


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