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Greece is heading towards early elections. The latest announcement by Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou to hold a referendum is merely an attempt to win time. I am no longer sure he deserves that.

The Constitution of Greece foresees the possibility for a referendum in its Article 44. The procedures for holding referendums were reformed only a month ago but remain rather vague, including with respect to how they are binding.

There are two types of referenda that can be held in Greece:

a) Referendums on issues of grave national concern may be called by Presidential Decree following an absolute majority vote in Parliament, i.e. 151 votes out of a total of 300.
b) Referendums on laws recently voted by Parliament, with the exception of those concerning fiscal issues, can be further legitimized via referendum following a proposal by at least 120 Members of Parliament (MPs) and approval by 180 MPs.

The above numbers are interesting in view of the very thin majority of Papandreou’s governing party PASOK, namely 152 seats as of yesterday. But also: if the bailout scheme were to be classified as a fiscal issue (which it is, in part) then a referendum after parliamentary approval would not be possible.

There are two further problems with Papandreou’s proposals:

• First, a referendum is only sensible if it can also be clearly and unambiguously formulated in order to allow a ‘yes/no’ answer—a pretty much impossible task given the complexity of the subject at hand. One would probably have to pose multiple questions, which might be legally impossible, besides raising the question how to cope with answers pointing in different directions.

• Second, Papandreou hopes to capitalize on the majority wish within the Greek electorate to remain within the Eurozone in order to push through approval of the bailout scheme agreed last week in Brussels. Together with several political commentators he represents the view that it is inconsistent to want to maintain the Euro and not agree with austerity measures. This position is debatable at best. There is nothing inconsistent or irrational in wanting to maintain the Euro (including agreement to the 50% debt write-off) whilst not agreeing with the government’s specific austerity plans.

Papandreou returned from Brussels last week expecting appreciation for the new agreement. He got none, neither from the opposition, nor from his own party. PASOK is in a state of disarray while Nea Dimokratia, the main opposition party, is pushing for new elections. It argues that it would have done better in negotiations with the EU and the IMF. This is very unlikely, yet in the current climate of hysteria anything goes. Moreover, Samaras, the head of the opposition, has a reputation for populism. He is namely the one who back in 1993 led the movement ‘Political Spring’ to mobilize on nationalist grounds against the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by the Republic of Macedonia.

Against this background, Papandreou’s disappointment may be understandable, but it remains that of a man who loses his cool. Were he to have seriously thought his proposition through, he would have realized it is unlikely it will improve his status or that of his country. In the absence of agreement within his party’s ranks, and failure to set up a government of national unity, new elections are unavoidable—with or without a referendum—in which case, the earlier the better. Iveta Radičová’s more responsible way of dealing with similar opposition dynamics in Slovakia in the recent past offers lessons that unfortunately were not heeded.

How does all this impact on the bailout agreement? Not much, I would contend. What is at issue here is not the agreement as such but the austerity measures that accompany it. Evidently, these must be more carefully thought through. Papandreou’s government would not be the first to fall over bailout agreements combined with severe austerity measures. Portugal and Ireland are forerunners, Italy is likely to follow.