British voters had over a year to come to an informed opinion about a straightforward question on whether to leave the EU. Greek voters had eight days to consider a ‘creatively ambiguous’ referendum on austerity measures amid an atmosphere of tremendous media and government propaganda.
ATHENS — (ANALYSIS) Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the day Greek voters sent shockwaves throughout Europe and the world by voting oxi (no) in a referendum on whether to accept or reject an austerity package proposed by Greece’s lenders.
The result of the July 5, 2015 referendum set off euphoric celebrations worldwide amongst those championing the end of austerity, and prompted doom-and-gloom scenarios from the pro-austerity crowd and those who favored Greece remaining in Europe “at all costs.”
But it turns out that both of these perspectives were naive.
The stifling austerity measures that had been imposed in Greece since 2010 not only continued, but the Syriza-led Greek government agreed, just days after the referendum, to a third memorandum agreement which contained even harsher austerity measures than those which had been rejected by voters. Greece remained very much “within Europe” and the eurozone, with the blessing of its “leftist,” “anti-austerity” government.
A creatively ambiguous referendum
Syriza’s ascent to power in January 2015 was accompanied by a tremendous wave of optimism, both in Greece and abroad. For those who kept their eyes open, however, Syriza’s “anti-austerity” rhetoric — including claims that it would “tear up” Greece’s memorandum agreements and abolish all of the austerity measures with “one law and one article” — were unconvincing.
There were many reasons to doubt Syriza’s sincerity, and the first months of the Syriza-led government confirmed those doubts. For instance, just weeks before the referendum, it was Syriza and then-Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who had presented to Greece’s lenders a 47-page austerity proposal, containing measures totaling €8 billion (worth $8.87 billion today).
Therefore, for those who were paying attention, the July 5, 2015 referendum was met with skepticism, at best. The referendum was a marvel of “creative ambiguity,” to borrow a phrase used by Varoufakis. While it did ask voters to accept or reject the lenders’ austerity proposal, it did not present voters with details about the proposal or, more importantly, what the government’s plans were in the event that “no” prevailed.
Indeed, neither Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras nor any other government official presented any plan or even any hint of what the government’s strategy would be if the lenders’ austerity proposal was rejected by voters. That should have been a red flag, and for some, it was — and in conjunction with Syriza’s other actions in its first few months in office, the betrayal was predictable and unsurprising. Furthermore, the “creatively ambiguous” nature of the referendum question, and the lack of any post-referendum commitment, gave the Syriza-led government the leeway it needed to interpret the result according to its wishes.
Another red flag stems from the fact that the referendum was held under conditions of maximum media and political scaremongering, in a climate in which banks were shuttered and capital controls were imposed two days after the referendum was called, amidst endless warnings of the chaos that would ensue should a “no” vote prevail. The international media, in turn, poisoned global public opinion with sensationalistic and largely falsified stories about empty supermarket shelves and gas stations that had run dry in Greece. Yannis Koutsomitis, a correspondent from Greece who is influential in shaping the country’s image abroad, proudly tweeted his “yes” ballot. The government did nothing to stop this media manipulation.
And with the referendum having been called on June 27, 2015, voters had just eight days to ponder the referendum question and make a decision. Calling a referendum under such conditions, with shuttered banks and withdrawal limits imposed at ATMs, should belie what the Syriza-led government’s true intentions were.
Nevertheless, the Greek electorate resoundingly voted “no.” But in rejecting the lenders’ austerity proposals, what message were 61.3 percent of Greek voters actually attempting to send? Were they calling for an exit from the eurozone and/or the European Union? Did they wish to remain “in Europe” but with a “better deal?” Did they wish to remain in the eurozone and EU but, somehow, without the strings of austerity attached? Was it simply a vote of confidence in the Syriza-led coalition or a vote of frustration for the previous six years of suffering? In “creatively ambiguous” fashion, the referendum question left the result open to a great deal of interpretation — and the Syriza-led government took full advantage of this ambiguity.
‘No’ becomes ‘yes’ in a third memorandum
It is clear now that the government was in shock at the resounding “no” victory in the referendum. Leading up to the referendum, Greek and international media outlets — who could barely conceal their support for a “yes” vote — were predicting that “yes” would narrowly prevail. Exit polls showed “no” with a razor-thin edge that was within the margin of statistical error. No poll, at any time, predicted the actual margin of victory for a “no” vote — and this seems to have shocked the Syriza-led government.
The very next day, in an emergency meeting of the leaders of all parties represented in the Greek Parliament, Prime Minister Tsipras was given the green light to come to an agreement with the “institutions” (lenders). Tsipras and other government officials, both before and after the referendum, repeatedly stated their intentions to keep Greece within the eurozone, and on July 8, 2015, the Greek government formally asked for a three-year “bailout” from its lenders. This request was approved by the Greek Parliament on July 10, and on July 13, the “third memorandum” was agreed to in principle by the Syriza-led government.
This third memorandum agreement was even more onerous than the initial two which prior governments had signed. A triumph of neoliberalism, the third memorandum included pledges for Greece to run gradually increasing primary budget surpluses (meaning, in plain language, more austerity, since Greece was running a deficit at the time). It foresaw the privatization of €50 billion worth of public assets, setting the stage for the selloff of 14 profitable Greek regional airports and one of Europe’s largest ports, the port of Piraeus, in early 2016 at embarrassingly low prices. Revenues from the privatizations would not enter Greek coffers but would instead be directly placed into a “fund” controlled by “relevant European institutions.” “Pension reforms” were agreed to, setting the stage for the pension reform bill which was passed in May, slashing already low pensions to as little as €345 per month.
The third memorandum also raised numerous taxes, including the value-added tax on many goods and services, and it maintained the previously “temporary” unified property tax (ENFIA), which prior to being elected, Syriza had claimed was illegal and unconstitutional. In addition, the new memorandum agreement authorized the third recapitalization of Greek banks, which was finalized earlier this year at absurdly meager terms. Capping off this total and final surrender, the Greek government agreed that all legislation and policies which could affect the objectives of the bailout — essentially, any economic or social policies — can only be enacted after consultation with, and with the agreement of, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Even the Financial Times was forced to admit that this deal, far from “bailing out” Greece, was akin to the relationship between a colonial overlord and its vassal.
Faux heroes and mixed messages
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, with supposedly fierce “negotiations” taking place between the Greek government and its lenders, an international movement in “solidarity” with Greece sprung up, with demonstrations held in major cities across the Western world. Oddly enough, these “spontaneous” demonstrations featured participants equipped with, among other things, Syriza flags, which are not likely to be easily purchased in London or New York. Despite this movement adopting the catchphrase “This Is a Coup” once it became clear that the referendum result would be betrayed, it fizzled out by mid-July, not long after the ink of signatures for the third “bailout” agreement had dried.
Similarly, all of the enthusiasm and supposed protest against austerity in Greece also dried up by mid-July. While Syriza-organized rallies in favor of “no,” sometimes replete with pseudo-revolutionary rock stars and musicians, attracted hundreds of thousands of people in the days leading up to the vote, the crowd protesting outside the Greek Parliament on July 13, 2015, when the “bailout” was agreed to by Parliament, numbered a couple of thousand at best. In September 2015, snap national elections delivered a result almost identical to the January 2015 elections, and brought the Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition back to power.
The sudden apathy demonstrated by the people of Greece after the betrayal of the referendum is often excused away as the result of a populace having been shocked into submission. This explanation seems unsatisfactory, however, especially when voters had, in September, an opportunity to punish both the parties which betrayed the referendum result, as well as the parties which called for “yes” prior to the referendum.
What seems more likely is that much of the 61.3 percent of voters who said “no” on July 5, 2015 were the “party faithful” of Syriza and the Independent Greeks, who, despite the continued betrayal of their pre-election promises all throughout their first months in power, were at the apex of their popularity at the time of the referendum. This section of voters simply went with whatever they believed the parties they supported were instructing them to vote.
Moreover, many such voters were likely to be in favor of “remaining in Europe” but with a “better deal,” which was the platform put forth by Syriza and the Independent Greeks — neither of whom favored a return to a domestic currency. These are these same voters who brought Syriza and the Independent Greeks back to power in September, and likely include the majority of the 61.3 percent who voted “no,” leaving only a small minority who voted “no” out of principle and who were also voting against remaining in the EU and the eurozone. The abstention rate in the referendum was similar to that in both the January and September 2015 parliamentary elections, indicating no significant change in the pool of voters who cast a ballot.
“[Tsipras] doesn’t have the mandate to take tougher measures and now we are giving that to him. It’s not true this is a vote on the euro. It’s a vote to change course and stay in the euro, and Tsipras is our best hope.”
One needs to look no further than the archives of the “ChangeEurope” hashtag on Twitter, which was full of support for “no” — and for a “better Europe” — around the time of the Greek referendum.
All of this would help explain why the protest movement in Greece has been dormant ever since the referendum, with only a few thousand people appearing outside of Parliament in early May to protest the new pension reform bill and the subsequent 7,500-page omnibus bill, which, among other dire consequences, signed over all of Greece’s assets to the European Stability Mechanism for 99 years.
Brexit and political opportunism
Almost one year later, we have seen voters in Britain vote, in their own referendum, to leave the EU. Similarly to the Greek referendum, this vote took place amidst a climate of tremendous media scaremongering and manipulation — a climate which has persisted since the referendum.
While it remains entirely possible that this result will also be betrayed, unlike in the Greek referendum, the question put forth to voters in Britain was straightforward and clear: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Additionally, unlike the eight days voters in Greece had to make a decision, voters in Britain had over a year to decide, as the referendum was announced in May 2015 and was officially scheduled this past February. This provided voters with much more time to reflect, to research, and to come to an informed decision. And they could do so without the same climate of fear seen in Greece, and without banks shuttered and withdrawal limits at ATMs.
Other supposed champions of the people are using the one-year anniversary of “oxi” as a means of political opportunism. Syriza, which must think the public is either forgetful or stupid or both, issued an announcement on Tuesday hailing last year’s “no” vote. Zoe Konstantopoulou, who was president of the Greek Parliament in the first Syriza government and who has since founded the “Course of Freedom” political party, declined to vote “no” to the new “bailout” agreement following the betrayal, whilst stating her continued “support” for the Syriza-led government at the time. This week though, she called upon Greeks to take to the streets in commemoration of the “no” vote, as did Panagiotis Lafazanis, the energy minister in the first Syriza government, who later founded the “Popular Unity” political party and who also continued “supporting” the Syriza-led government following the betrayal.
Both Konstantopoulou and Lafazanis had no trouble voting for everything from the February 2015 Eurogroup agreement extending all of the previous austerity measures, to the nomination and election of corrupt, conservative, pro-EU and pro-austerity former government minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos as president of the Hellenic Republic. Now, along with Varoufakis, they present themselves as “anti-austerity” champions to the people of Greece and Europe and have attempted to hijack the “no” vote that they, through their actions, did not support.
Yet this provides little comfort for Greek pensioners who recently woke up to the news that pensions which had been reduced by almost half from their already paltry sums — pensions which often support entire unemployed families, and which were reduced directly as a result of the betrayal of the July 2015 referendum.