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Grand gestures, empty gestures

By Nick Malkoutzis

There was some important news relating to Greece on Monday. The European Commission’s statistics agency, Eurostat, unveiled EU unemployment figures that showed the jobless rate in Greece has risen to a painful 17.6 percent. Given that unemployment has been rising incessantly over the last couple of years, these are the kind of figures that should set alarm bells ringing. Instead, the panic button was pressed for a very different reason.

We might not discover for some time what really prompted Prime Minister George Papandreou to call for a referendum on whether Greece should accept the latest eurozone debt deal. A number of theories have been put forward: Papandreou is unhappy with some aspects of the agreement and wants to use the referendum as leverage to force a better one or the prime minister was jolted by the strong reaction of protesters during the October 28 parades or he wants to buy some time and goodwill for his beleaguered government by avoiding elections or he wants to find a heroic end to the dead-end he’s trapped in.

Each and all of these scenarios are possible but also puzzling. If Papandreou wanted to strengthen his negotiating hand, surely the wiser tactic would have been to tell his EU counterparts before the latest negotiations of his intention to hold a referendum. If his decision was prompted by Friday’s protests –- as powerful and symbolic as they were -- then it would suggest that the premier has not read a newspaper, listened to the radio or watched TV over the last few months. If his aim is to buy his government some time, then this assumes confidence in winning the referendum, which simply cannot be justified under the current circumstances. Were Papandreou looking for a way to sign off with his head held high, then surely delivering the haircut and walking off into the sunset of his own accord would have been a much more fitting moment than being booted out at the ballot box.

In fact, there is very little that is logical about calling a referendum at this point. The inability of the Greek people to express politically their view on the way this crisis is being handled has undoubtedly fanned the flames of protest but that leaves the government with two choices: either to weather the storm because it's relying on its mandate from the 2009 poll and feels that what it’s doing is right or it calls elections and lets voters reshuffle the parliamentary deck based on what policies each party proposes.

Instead, what is being proposed is a potentially dangerous half-way house. Under normal circumstances, a referendum would be a cause to celebrate –- after all, it would be the first time since 1974, when they voted to send their royal family to exile, for Greeks to directly express an opinion on an issue of utmost importance. However, in this case, such a reaffirmation of democracy would be a path fraught with dangers that might lead to the very ability to decide their fate being whipped away from the Greek people and their Parliament. For instance, it is quite possible the International Monetary Fund’s executive board will sit in Washington over the next few days and vote not to release any more loans for Greece, pending the outcome of a referendum vote. Greece’s eurozone partners may follow suit. This would leave Greece unable to meet its remaining commitments this year. The decision to plunge the country -– barring a miraculous intervention -– into bankruptcy would be signed, sealed and delivered to the door of an outgoing prime minister. Equally, the banks that provisionally agreed last week to a 50 percent haircut would be left with little motive to finalize that deal given that the Greeks could reject it in January anyway.

Nobody can argue against giving the Greek people a say –- after all, the October 26 deal means that their country will be under the supervision of others for the next decade -– but what they would be asked to decide on is unlikely to exist by January. It’s a supreme irony that Papandreou seems to have scuppered Greeks’ opportunity to have their say by actually calling for a vote, but it’s in keeping with the mixed messages and twisted thinking that has accompanied the prime minister’s doomed attempt at democratic gymnastics.

After all, it was only a few days ago that Papandreou defended the deal in a televised address, arguing that it made Greece’s debt sustainable. To propose a referendum on the agreement a few days later suggests that as the country’s elected leader he did not have confidence in the agreement from the start.

However, the hypocrisy has not only been on Papandreou’s part. It has been revealing how quick opponents of the deal and those skeptical about Greece’s heightened state of supervision have reacted to the possibility of the agreement being rejected at the ballot box. New Democracy, which made much of the sovereignty issue last week, is now worried that the referendum would lead to Greece’s exit from the euro and the EU. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which had called for the initial loan deal to be put to a referendum, now insists only elections would do.

In fact, the only good thing that would have come from the referendum would have been that it would have forced all those who have stood on the sidelines shouting about easy solutions to come onto the field of play and defend their theories in front of the Greek people. But this won’t happen now. The referendum has been overtaken by the prospect of national elections, where voters will have a different chance to gauge the sincerity of their politicians.

The question they will have to ask of their leaders and parties is not who will be able to provide more of the grand gestures of mock leadership that Papandreou made his trademark in the past years -– Greece has been abundantly blessed with those in the past -- but who, if anyone, can tackle the real problems the country faces. Combating unemployment might be a good start -– jobs are something that Greece is in desperate need of.

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday November 1, 2011 (19:07)  
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