Which Referendum? Greeks Take Sides in Battle to Frame Debate

A closed branch of the National Bank of Greece
Pensioners sit and wait on the steps outside a closed main branch of the National Bank of Greece on June 29, 2015 Photographer: Kontantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg

Greeks heading toward a hastily organized Sunday referendum have a chance to shape the future of their nation. Except that the two sides can’t even agree on what the vote’s about.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says rejecting the creditors’ proposals is a vote against austerity and for bolstering the country’s bargaining power. Greek opposition parties and European Union leaders say the stakes are saving Greece -- already struggling with closed banks, capital controls and a five-year recession -- from economic calamity and a withdrawal from the euro.

The side that succeeds in framing the issue will have a major advantage given that Greeks themselves are conflicted by a desire to stay in the single currency -- but absent the austerity measures that have crippled its economy. With the first public opinion surveys on the creditors’ memorandum expected as early as Wednesday, pollsters and party officials are indicating the vote is too close to call.

“The key thing is what people think is at stake when they vote,” said Thomas Gerakis, head of Athens-based Marc Pollsters. “If the question that predominates in people’s minds is that we’re voting for or against the memorandum, people will probably vote against. But if in people’s minds it’s euro or drachma, obviously the majority of people want the euro.”

The polls are rife with these conflicts. A GPO poll for Mega TV earlier this month showed willingness to stay in the euro at “any cost” was about 70 percent, even as 54 percent of those surveyed agreed with the government’s negotiating tactics.

Creditor Proposals

The July 5 referendum will ask Greeks if they support the proposals made by the country’s creditors at a June 25 meeting of euro-area finance ministers. They include a list of reform measures and an analysis of the sustainability of Greek public debt. Tsipras and his governing Syriza party are calling for a “no” vote, while the political opposition advocates “yes.”

“Our goal, our hope, our target is for the referendum to result in the continuation of negotiations with stronger weapons on our side,” Tsipras said in an interview with state-run ERT TV Monday. “They will not kick us out of the euro zone.”

European leaders and officials are countering with warnings that Greece may be on the verge of exiting the single currency. European Central Bank Executive Board member Benoit Coeure said in an interview with Les Echos newspaper that Greece’s departure from the euro can no longer be excluded.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have also signaled they’ve reached the limits of their ability to safeguard Greece, offering the Greek government no further concessions to step back from the brink.

Ballot Language

“The real question which is being proposed is yes or no to Europe. Yes or no to the euro,” Antonis Samaras, leader of the main opposition New Democracy Party, told lawmakers Monday.

The wording on the ballot paper is far from that.

“Should the draft agreement submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund on 25.06.2015 that consists of two parts be accepted?” voters will be asked. “The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the completion of the current program and beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis’.”

The deepening crisis -- which includes the government’s decision to close banks this week and growing concerns about a financial meltdown -- may be moving momentum in the favor of a ‘yes’ vote, said Nikos Marantzidis, pollster and professor of political science at the University of Macedonia.

Euro Support

“Closed banks have triggered fear among voters and support for the euro over the national currency is at the highest level ever in our surveys over the past few days,” Nikos Marantzidis said, adding that the outcome of the referendum is still open and the situation is fluid. He declined to provide poll figures.

Opposition parties, sensing an opportunity, are raising alarm bells and fueling worries.

“A no vote will drive us to the abyss of economic catastrophe,” Spyros Danellis, a lawmaker for opposition party Potami, said in an interview. “We owe it to our kids to keep Greece in the European Union.”

Potami is one of the three main opposition parties, including Pasok and New Democracy, that are backing the ‘yes’ camp in the referendum and whose members are planning to fan out across the country to campaign. The official “yes” committee is made up of at least 26 groups and associations, including most of the country’s largest business groups.

The “no” campaign is being supported by Syriza -- a coalition of radical groups ranging from Maoists to Social Democrats -- and the country’s two far-right parties. The Communist Party of Greece is encouraging its members to use fake, useless ballots.

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