ATHENS – When Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras dropped the bombshell of a popular plebiscite on the tough demands of creditors keeping Greece afloat, he cited the country’s pedigree as the “birthplace of democracy.”
Greeks, the left-wing prime minister said last weekend, “should send a resounding democratic message to the European and global community.”
For some, however, Sunday’s sudden referendum is, at best, a distortion of democracy.
Bitter and angry after six years of one of the worst economic crises of modern times, Greeks are being asked to vote “yes” or “no” to a bailout proposal that is no longer on the table, answering a question worded in cryptic legalese.
They have been given just one week to make a choice that will have profound ramifications for Greece and its future in Europe, though many remain confused as to what those consequences might be.
Vote “yes,” and Greeks won’t get the deal described on the ballot paper, because it expired on Tuesday.
Vote “no,” and the government says it will return to the negotiating table with a strengthened hand — only the creditors might not be there to keep talking.
Instead, European leaders say that repudiation of austerity will mean rejection of the rules that bind the 19 nations of the eurozone, and Greece’s potential exit.
“It’s a very populist and fundamentally dishonest way of dealing with an extremely serious question,” said Gerald Knaus, founder of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank dealing with Southeast Europe.
The Council of Europe, a European rights watchdog, said on Wednesday the vote fell short of international standards, which demand at least two weeks of public debate and a simple question.
Instead, the Greek question reads:
“Should the proposal that was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the Eurogroup of June 25, 2015, which consists of two parts that together constitute their comprehensive proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the Completion of the Current Program and Beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.'”
The “no” box sits above the “yes.”
“It looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland,” said Knaus. “You put on the table an agreement that has already been withdrawn, that is no longer there to reject. It’s technically misleading, there is too little time to debate, the question is not clear, the messages by the government are misleading.”
Greeks abroad are unable to vote unless they return home.
Asked about the concerns, State Minister Nikos Pappas, a close aide to Tsipras, told reporters: “I do not see that we have done something that is beyond European rules. Very recently we had elections, so the whole logistical operation is in full capacity.”
“Everybody should grow accustomed to the idea that very often we will ask our people what the choice ahead should be,” he said, speaking in English.
The Syriza-led government says it was elected in January on a mandate to fight austerity, but was presented with a take-it-or-leave-it aid offer from creditors that Tsipras argued would only further suffocate the economy. He insists Greece’s European partners do not want to see Greece leave the common currency, fearing further fallout for the union, so they will be forced to compromise if Greeks vote “no.”
Some Greeks, however, admit bewilderment.
“I haven’t seen any document,” said Alexandros Vougiouklakis, the owner of a car recycling business northwest of Athens. “And if I see it, I doubt I’ll be able to understand it.”
Brussels and Athens have been locked in an elaborate dance of proposal and counter-proposal to no avail. The last overture came from the Greeks when Tsipras said he would accept the main tenets of the deal he is asking voters to reject, with a few adjustments.
“They send a third proposal and at the same time they ask the people to give their opinion about a proposal that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Nicole Papathanasopoulo, a 47-year-old lawyer. “It’s crazy. We don’t know what to do.”
The Council of State, Greece’s highest court, was to rule on Friday on a complaint filed by two Greeks against the vote, arguing that the constitution bars referendums on fiscal matters.
In fairness, Europe’s grand project to bind its nations into an unbreakable union after two world wars has been tainted by questions of democracy before.
Danes were made to vote twice on the Maastricht Treaty, the founding document of the European Union, after rejecting it in 1992, as were the Irish when they initially threw out the Treaty of Nice, which set the framework for the bloc’s expansion.
In 2005, French and Dutch voters rejected a European Constitution designed to give the bloc stronger leadership, a more effective foreign policy and a smoother decision-making system.
So the Lisbon Treaty was drafted, containing many of the same elements but without being put to popular plebiscite. Only the Irish were granted a vote, rejecting the treaty in 2008 before endorsing it in 2009.
In Germany, Greece’s biggest creditor, its toughest critic and the backbone of the euro, the Bild newspaper on Friday invited Germans to vote on whether they should keep paying to keep Athens afloat. The “yes” box was placed above the “no.”
Many Germans, of course, still gripe about a vote that never was — on ditching the much-loved deutsche mark when the euro was rolled out in the late 1990s.
Helmet Kohl, who as Germany’s longest-serving postwar chancellor was a founding father of the common currency, said later the euro would never have passed a popular vote.
“I knew that I could never win a referendum in Germany,” he was reported as telling a German journalist in 2002. “I was like a dictator. … The euro is a synonym for Europe.”