The Greek short-cut referendum drama

With a popular vote on the complex bailout terms coming up this weekend, Europe and the world once again has to revisit its suboptimal handling of modern direct democracy.

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, was very frank: "Democracy deserved a boost in euro-related matters. We just delivered it. Let the people decide." With that tweet on June 26, his government put the latest bailout proposal to a popular vote just 10 days later — on July 5.

This short-cut referendum is a pivotal, and highly controversial, moment in the unfolding Greek-European drama. And that´s a play with global implications.
It´s also a story about Greece and democracy. While it was the undisputed cradle of ancient direct democracy, Greek citizens have never been able to opt in to the modern forms of citizen law-making, like the initiative and referendum. Instead, the Greeks have struggled with various more or less autocratic regimes involving the military, oligarchs and (most recently) populist forces on the far left and right.

The July 5 vote is posed as a vote on another type of regime - the international economic governance regime that has overseen the Greek bailout. On July 5, the Greek are voting on two key documents from the so-called Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund).

National sovereignty and international economics

Whatever the result, the vote has already shown the incompatibility of national sovereignty and such international economic regimes. Indeed, nations and the international regimes can´t seem to agree on common language, a precursor for agreeing on common rules necessary for decision-making processes athat are free and fair.

We see currently similar challenges when it comes to the controversial negotiations surrounding international free-trade agreements like the Trans-Atlantic Partnership agreement between the US and Asian countries or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US. Over and over in such debates, we see vast differences between the language used by democratic polities and the one of global businesses.

As a product of this phenomenon, the Greek referendum is a strong example of the many problems that conflicts between national democracy and international economics can cause.

First, Greece has no experience - and thus no institutional or cultural context - for such a vote. The last nationwide vote on substantive issues was in 1974, when the Greek people had to decide how to replace the military regime: with a monarchy or a republic. They opted for the republic. The only referendum vote which did not address an issue related to the form of government was a plebiscite on a new constitution during the military dictatorship in 1968.

Old idea, new use

The idea of a referendum is not new; it was first suggested four years ago, near the beginning of this same economic and political crisis. In October 2011 then-Prime Minister George Papandreou surprised the public by announcing a referendum on an earlier bailout agreement. Papandreou had prepared for it by adopting a referendum law earlier that year, which included a three-month period of public deliberation before a vote. The referendum didn´t happen. But it is that untested law that will govern Sunday´s referendum - though there will be just a few days, not months, of deliberation.

More crucially - and as revealed by the finance minister´s tweet mentioned above - Sunday´s vote is very dubious as a "boost for democracy". This is not a proper referendum based on a law or the process of a minority request. It is a plebiscite, offered to the people from the government above. Plebiscites are indeed the favorite form of autocratic and populist rulers who want to "engage" the public in order to gain additional (and often instant) legitimacy. In the history of countries around the globe, you can find hundreds of example manipulated referendums, which are gladly used by opponents of genuine democracy to argue against the direct involvement of citizens in the agenda-setting and decision-making process.

Typically plebiscites have these elements. They are based on voluntarily referrals to the people by a ruling power (president, government, parliament). They don´t allow time and space for public deliberation (snap decisions). And they often have a problematic and biased design of the ballot paper and the referendum question themselves. And finally, it is far from clear what will happen when it comes to following up and implementing a plebiscitary decision.

In Greece this Sunday, all these ingredients are part of the vote, which could open all doors to de-legitimizing people power, and further strengthening extremist, populist and anti-democratic forces. So does the illusion of democracy threaten democracy.

Strong ideas, weak practices

What´s most striking about the Greek plebiscite-referendum is not what it says about Greece but what it says about the world. It´s a powerful expression of how unable (or unwilling) the European Union and other democratic powers are to stick to their own core values and implement them in practice.

The pattern heading up to this vote is distressingly familiar. World leaders refer to all the things they do not like (war, violence, human rights abuse, autocratic behavior etc), but do not invest the political will, resources and time to develop robust democratic infrastructures for making decisions on all political levels.
Today, it has been 70 years since the founding of the United Nations (which in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly established - under article 21 – the principles of modern participatory democracy). It has been six years since the EU Lisbon Treaty in place (also – article 11 – establishing direct citizens participation as a fundamental pillar of modern democracy). But still, the world does not take proper democratic functioning seriously enough, and we do not work to learn from each other.

Referendums on Europe in Europe

Why can´t we do better when it comes to referendums in Europe on Europe? Since 1973 almost 60 such votes have been held, in more than 25 countries. In the months to come, Denmark will organie a popular vote on reinforcing its ties to EU cooperation internal security (most likely in December 2015) while the United Kingdom is lining up to a second popular vote on EU membership next year (the first one was in 1975).

There is a real threat when we don´t get such votes right. Because when borderless economic interests overrun and counteract fundamental democratic rights and achievements - as we experience in the current Greek-European drama - this invites all kind of forces (uninterested in modern people power themselves) to resort to simplistic, propagandist and hence deeply problematic positions.

Establishing a more sustainable balance between the internationally and nationally enshrined democratic fundamental rights and the dynamics of a free and open world must be a key task for our generation. It is very obvious that votes like the one in Greece this week don´t help us in this work; they only offer invitations to further democratic setbacks.