Ask them what they really really want.

Photographer: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Greek Referendum Is More Con Than Democracy

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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The Greek parliament has approved a referendum to decide whether to accept the latest bailout terms offered by the country’s creditors. It will come too late and ask the wrong question.

This is a vote that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras should have called at least a month ago -- if it were an honest effort to let the Greek people make a democratic choice on where their future lies, which it is not. As it is, the July 5 referendum will be so rushed as to be flawed in principle, and will come after the current bailout program expires. Indeed, it may come after Greece has already suffered a banking collapse.

The referendum is not, as Tsipras repeatedly claimed during his announcement, an expression of democracy in response to the “authoritarianism” of the creditors. His argument that the creditors must bend to the will of his election mandate has been preposterous from the start: In which debtor nation would voters not elect to have easier credit terms? And in what case has the International Monetary Fund or any creditor been answerable to the electorate of its client nation?

I’ve argued for Greece to hold a vote to clarify what its people want. It was necessary because Syriza lied during the campaign to get its representatives elected in January, by offering to end the bailout terms, keep the bailout and stay in the euro -- an option that, rightly or wrongly, was never available. Rather than produce a clearer mandate, though, this proposed referendum would continue Syriza’s subterfuge.

According to a draft cabinet proposal, the question on which Greeks would be asked to vote in just seven days’ time would be whether they want to accept the latest offer from the country’s creditors. This is a complex document that has yet to be translated into Greek and may well be void by Wednesday. It is clear from the language Tsipras used in describing that offer -- “blackmail,” “humiliation,” “ultimatum” -- which way he wants the vote to go.

Again, just as during the election campaign, Syriza officials are not mentioning what all this would mean for Greece’s place in the euro. They are maintaining the fiction that the question of accepting the bailout terms is quite separate from whether Greece defaults on its debt payments, sees its financial sector collapse and is forced to issue its own currency in one guise or another.

Not once in his address on the referendum did Tsipras mention the common currency. When the Associated Press asked Syriza cabinet minister Panagiotis Lafazanis whether the nirvana of reconstruction and progress he described as following from a “no” vote to the bailout would involve leaving the euro, he said:  “It is you [the media] who pose this dilemma.”

This is populist dishonesty. It may be that by this point Greece would be better off defaulting and returning to the drachma (though I doubt it). And it may be that a majority of Greeks would make the choice to go it alone, rather than continue a dysfunctional relationship with the nation’s economic partners and creditors (although opinion polls suggest not). But the proposed referendum doesn’t ask those questions.

Tsipras and his party want this vote to legitimize their decision to default and exit the euro, most likely after that decision has already been made, without actually telling Greeks that this is the choice they are making. It gives further weight to my suspicion that Syriza’s erratic negotiating behavior for the last five months has been driven by a preference for default and exiting the euro they could not express, because the party had no mandate for it.

Greek voters should be told the honest truth about what they would be deciding on July 5, if the vote goes ahead at all after the likely chaos of the next week: a return to the bailout terms within the euro, or a default and a return to fiscal sovereignty outside it.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net