The harsh bailout terms offered the Greek government in the latest round of negotiations have been greeted with a horrified chorus of #thisisacoup. The implication is that the demands of the creditors violate the democratic will of the Greek people, as expressed in the triumph of the NO vote in the 5th July referendum.
But how democratic was that referendum to begin with?
The vast majority of Greeks did not vote on the ballot question. Non-Greek speakers will find this hard to appreciate, but they should not feel too bad; most Greek-speakers were also confused. This is no accident, nor is it proof of political immaturity. The choice of question, the way it was presented, the compressed timeframe, and the rhetoric surrounding it were all designed to discourage informed, rational choice, and to encourage the knee-jerk reaction, the lazy thought association, the emotional response, the defensive reflex. Plebiscites are not designed for nuanced political thinking, but even within these parameters, the Greek referendum could not be further from a triumph of democracy and a pure expression of popular will. It was a divisive ploy, designed to let a cornered government off the hook of having to make difficult decisions, and share the blame for their failure with a desperate population. You do not need to be pro- or anti-bailout in order to appreciate the mechanics.
For apprentice populists, here’s how it works:
- Set an incomprehensibe question on the ballot
- Offer a very basic interpretation and a strong emotional steer, stir, repeat
- Interpret the mandate at will
- What was the question, again?
On the face of it, it was an opporunity to vote for or against a dry, bureaucratic checklist of policy measures, following the by now familiar recipe of fiscal austerity and governance reform that has been Greece’s steady diet since it entered the bailout programme in 2010.
Our more leisurely unpicking of the referendum ballot shows that it is not so straightforward. We have the luxury of time now, that Greek voters were deprived of. If more voters had been able to access, read and absorb the referendum documents, more would have understood that they were being presented with a non-question.
I have spoken to several people who decided to spoil their ballots or abstain after doing their homework and reaching this conclusion. One, an under-employed digital media professional who had used his slack time to take online economics tutorials, launched a facebook appeal to gather the supporting documentation. Another, a postdoc in natural sciences, had followed the negotiations in detail and merely noted that the bailout offer debated was no longer on the table. That was my natural instinct, too. Why justify this travesty with my vote? In the end I decided to hold my nose and vote tactically, anticipating that (over-)educated (over-)analytical voters would be a minority and that the protest vote would have the stronger turn-out. I did not want to be the principled Nader voter in Bush v. Gore 2000. But all of us felt disenfranchised.
- We all know what this is really about… or do we?
The real signals that voters reacted to had very little to do with the ballot question. Here is an unscientific survey of reasons people gave for voting YES or NO:
- To end austerity
- To end subjugation to foreign powers
- To protest against the corrupt political class
- Because the EU/Euro has hurt us
- Because I have nothing left to lose
- To try a different model
- Because Greece belongs in Europe
- Because I cannot take the risk of leaving the Euro
- Because I don’t want to wake up in Albania/Bulgaria/Serbia (with all due respect to our Balkan neighbours)
- Because I don’t trust the government with a blank cheque
- To cancel out a “no”
(Notably, not one person in my unscientific survey of YES voters said that they agreed with the specific proposals on the referendum ballot, but most grudgingly acknowledged them as the price of a future recovery).
Many outside observers will have assumed this was a referendum on the Euro or the EU. From the outset, the government worked hard to suppress this association, by stressing that NO did not equate to Grexit. They will have had in mind not only Syriza’s own election manifesto, but pretty much every opinion poll conducted since their election win, which confirmed that Greeks overwhelmingly favoured remaining in the single currency. In contrast, statements emanating from the European creditors in particular, tended to reject the notion that a NO vote could be compatible with a European future. The largest rallies and ad campaigns in support of YES were organised under the banner of “Μενουμε Ευρωπη” (“We stay in Europe”).
The messaging apparatus of the two sides of the debate was asymmetrical, but not in the way that is often presented in the foreign media. The government accused the “toxic” “Oligarchic” private media of terrorising the people with pro-creditor propaganda and nightmare scenarios. In the process, it allowed some of its more “outspoken” representatives to label the YES supporters as stooges of private interests and foreign overlords, and even traitors (“γερμανοτσολιαδες”, to use the evocative WWII term for Nazi collaborators). The same standards of impartiality were not applied to the state and party media, least of all the state TV stations that had been recently reinstated in a grand gesture by the victorious Syriza (the previous government having scored a spectacular own goal by taking them off the air in mid-broacast).
Much of the foreign coverage focussed narrowly on the broadcast and print media landscape that they could readily monitor and rushed to concur: yes, private broadcasters, owned by large state contractors, and often operating without licenses, greatly outnumbered the government-allied outlets, and they were generally supportive of the YES vote. But this misses a big part of the picture. The reach of Syriza and its affiliated groups is based on a formidable grass roots organisation in public sector unions, universities and the social media, including a long-standing tradition of telegenic street protest. Within hours of the referendum announcement, city centres were plastered with NO posters and graffiti, while coalition deputies were given ample opportunity to use the bully pulpit. The YES block managed to muster sizeable crowds at two hastily organised rallies in Athens, but they were clearly unaccustomed to taking to the streets, lacked spontaneity, and were easily lampooned as “the elites strolling in Syntagma square”. The YES movement managed to gain some popularity as long as it lacked party political affiliation, and gave some hope for the emergence of a civil society movement. The decision to wheel out largely discredited political grandees cost it dearly. Then there was Tsipras’s undeniable personal appeal. The Prime Minister made frequent unscheduled interventions across all media outlets in the run-up to the vote, with a measurable impact on voting intentions.
Finally, a NO vote had the unabiguous appeal of an outright protest. NO was not linked to an alternative proposal, there were no costs and benefits to weigh, no compromises. It merely implied that there was a zero-cost option, a way to end austerity, bring growth and restore national dignity without accountability. Between more pain and no pain, there is no doubt which has the most appeal.
The government’s NO argument focused on the most emotive elements of the draft proposals (their “red lines”), notably pension and salary cuts, but appealed mainly to an abstract sense of wounded national pride against the threat of humiliation. This rhetoric is the natural stomping ground not only of Syriza’s strange bedfellows in the coalition government, the right wing populist minority party of the Independent Greeks, but also the openly fascist Golden Dawn party, who both came out in support of NO.
- The people have spoken
Ultimately, as some of the more nuanced government rhetoric put it, this was a vote of confidence, intended to strengthen the government’s hand at the negotiating table. By forcing people to chose between a “straw man” and a wide open mandate, the government was ultimately able to secure popular approval to do, well, whatever it deemed right in the name of the people.
Within hours of the the decisive 60/40 NO result, the narcissist, confrontational Finance minister who had vowed to resign on a YES outcome celebrated the victory of NO by exiting his post and the negotiating table. Next, the government submitted to the creditors proposals that amounted to an enhanced version of the plan supposedly rejected by the proudly defiant democratic people of Greece. The NO vote delivered a YES outcome overnight.
Was it worth it?
This would only be an obscure footnote to the ongoing Euro crisis, were it not for the toxic legacy that the referendum will leave, regardless of voting outcome.
Much was made of the administrative cost of the ballot, in a country that was barely able to scrape together the monthly public sector paybill. For the sake of argument, let’s will take the middle estimate of €50 million. This is pocket change. The real economic cost is yet to be worked out, but unconfirmed estimates of losses to the real economy indicate around €1 billion for every week of bank closures and capital controls (two weeks at the time of writing, and counting). Large numbers of businesses have suspended or cut back trading and put staff on unpaid leave, import and export activity has been frozen, and bookings plummet as tourists begin to reassess their plans to holiday in Greece. This may still sound like a drop in the black hole of the Greek economy, but at this stage, and after five months of procrastination, it could be make or break in terms of being able to orchestrate a recovery. Many of the businesses now in an induced coma will never be resuscitated, and Greek national debt has now been pronounced conclusively unsustainable. The economic fundamentals dictate that any new bailout agreement will be harsher than the one on offer even two weeks ago. Did this strengthen Greece’s negotiating position? You would have to be delusional to think so.
I predict that the social and political legacy will be even more enduring. The polarising dog-whistle language that Syriza and the other NO factions have employed to great effect in their rise to prominence and particularly in the referendum, has created a palpable rift within Greek society. Ask most Greeks today, and you will hear at least one story from each of a social gathering ruined by an angry political row, or a friendship ended over voting differences; this is shocking in generations who have had no direct experience of anything but liberal democracy. This rift will only widen as life quality nosedives further, either through Grexit or more extreme austerity. Dire precedents have been set for democracy and freedom of speech, and they are becoming the norm with every day that passes in stress and uncertainty.
A final word to well-wishing foreign observers: It is all too easy to tap out a word like “coup” in a catchy Twitter hashtag, it is more chilling to hear it repeated by a Minister of Defence who just a few days earlier stated that the army was at the disposal of the government to guarantee public order. It is easy to accuse the European powers of “killing the European project” by asking for more guarantees for their loans. Nothing will kill the European project faster than a divided, desperate nation on the fringes of Europe.