Debt, Blackmail, Catharsis: Greek Drama Puts Nation, World Economy Back On Cliff
Analysis: The pause for air after last week’s EU summit has abruptly ended with the Greek government’s announcement of plans to hold a referendum on the debt bailout. This view from Germany says all bets are off. Again.
Following last Thursday's meeting in Brussels when the new rescue package for Greece was approved, an editorial in the Athens newspaper Kathimerini stated that there was one good thing about the agreement: it diminished the climate of uncertainty. "At least for the time being the fog has lifted and we know where we stand," the article said before ending on a prophetic note: the country would now have a "short time" to catch its breath. But that short? Not even a week?
Nobody saw it coming. Now we will wait for the confidence vote set this Friday in the Greek parliament, and the referendum on the rescue plan likely for January. At every turn along the way, the possibility has suddenly returned that what Europe and indeed the rest of the world were seeing as a done deal might fall apart. Even representatives from Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou's own party, the Pasok, were taken by surprise by the move.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos was in the loop, however, and his words revealed quite a bit about the motives of the move. "I've had enough of those polls that show a majority against the rescue program but in favor of staying in the euro zone," Venizelos said on Tuesday before heading for a hospital to be treated for stomach pains. Greece's leaders are exhausted, and tired of being demonized at home for decisions Europe is forcing on them.
The government no longer wants to bear responsibility alone. First, the conservative opposition party Nea Dimokratia resisted all attempts at creating a national unity government. ND party leader Antonis Samaras called for new elections and said he would never become "an accomplice" of the Prime Minister's policies. More and more functionaries were threatening their own governing Pasok party with rebellion. Seven members of the national party council called for Papandreou to step down, and one of its top members, Milena Apostolaki, announced she was quitting the party.
Her move meant that right before the confidence vote the Pasok parliamentary majority was reduced to just two seats. The Prime Minister was ever more isolated. So now he wants to share the burden of responsibility with all Greeks. "Let Greek citizens decide the fate of the country," said Papandreou, citing his trust in his fellow citizens.
This is either the last good ace he's holding, or as Kathimerini put it: "a dangerous chess move." If after months of a bitter campaign and violent demonstrations, more turbulence and instability on the markets, the worst case scenario was borne out: the Greek people vote "No" on the referendum.
Can we trust the polls?
A poll by the To Vima newspaper showed that 60% of those Greeks polled were against the debt write-down hammered out in Brussels, and the new austerity package that went with it. The reasons are not only new cuts but also a greater European role in monitoring the implementation of the reforms that had some of Papandreou's opponents branding him a national traitor.
But it's too early to pin too much meaning on the results of that poll. If the government survives Friday's confidence vote, then it will spend the following weeks hammering home to Greeks what a "No" could mean, such as a disorderly state bankruptcy with catastrophic social consequences and a possible exit from the euro zone.
We do not yet know the exact phrasing of the referendum's question, but the government's strategy appears to be to turn it into a vote about whether or not the Greeks want to stay in the euro zone – something that three out of every four Greeks say they want. Few want the return of the old Greek currency, the drachma.
Finance minister Venizelos said that Greece was in the throes of a drama and the referendum constituted catharsis. "Of course the Greek people can vote No," he said. "But the consequences of that must be clear to them."
Opponents from both the right and left are now talking about the "intimidation" and the "blackmail" of the move. ND speaker Yiannis Michelakis called Papandreou "dangerous," accusing him of "flipping Greece's future in Europe into the air like a coin."
For its part, the government is speculating on whether or not it now has more leverage with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The details of the rescue plan have not yet been ironed out, and now that the terrifying possibility of a "No" vote hovers over proceedings like a ghost, it's entirely possible that Athens could win one or two key concessions.
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Photo - Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας