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4 Reasons to be Worried: Could the Greek Referendum Have Been a Trap?

by Will Horner

Today Greeks have been returning in droves to their hometowns to vote in the referendum. Asked whether to say Ναι (Yes) or Οχι (No) to the Troika’s proposals, many are interpreting the vote as a Yes or No to austerity and the Eurozone. Whilst Syriza was bold and brave enough to stage this climactic confrontation with the Troika, there are a number of reasons why the party could be walking into a trap.

The referendum has always been the ace in Syriza’s hand. The Troika has been terrified that Syriza will play it because the institutions – the EU Commission, ECB and IMF – know just how unpopular their austerity measures are: hence why they cracked down so forcefully on George Papandreou in 2011 when he also suggested a referendum on austerity. A plebiscite on austerity is a vote the Troika can never win, or at least should never win. It’s now worrying to see recent polls putting the Yes vote ahead by the narrowest of margins. Here are four reasons why the referendum could have been the ace card Syriza played too hastily:

1. The referendum is the Troika’s best shot at regime change.

In a dramatic attempt to polarise the contest and indirectly make it a vote on Syriza’s stance, the Greek PM, Alexis Tsipras, and finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, have made it clear that if Greeks vote Yes the government will resign. In other words if Greeks vote Yes they’ll also be voting out a very popular government and potentially returning to power the hated parties of the centre and right in the form of a national unity government.

But this is also a gift to German premier Angela Merkel and co. At first you could sense the terror and anger in the leaders of the Troika when the referendum was announced. But lately they’ve been insisting on ‘no negotiations until after the referendum’. Why? Because now they’ve realised through economic blackmail and scaremongering over Greece’s future in Europe they have a real chance of winning and seeing the back of Syriza. It’s long been known the Troika would rather been dealing with a coalition of New Democracy, To Potami and others. Now’s their best chance to see that happen.

2. It’s forcing Syriza to fight on the Troika’s terms.

Syriza’s popular support has come from balancing demands for an end to austerity whilst staying firmly in the Eurozone. A sort of ‘have your cake and eat it’ position. However plausible Syriza’s insistence that both are possible may or may not be, it’s been the basis for the party’s popularity. Syriza has intentionally avoided asking Greeks to chose between the two because the huge support for Eurozone membership makes for a fight Syriza can’t control.

But that’s exactly what’s happening with the referendum. Of course that’s not literally what people are voting on – a rather long and complicated question about whether they support the creditors proposals – but it was inevitable that people would interpret it more simply: austerity or the euro? This is dangerous terrain for Syriza and it’s not where the party is strongest.

For example, the Yes campaign posters up in every Greek town display a huge Ναι below a picture of the Greek and EU flags fluttering gaily side by side, silhouetted against an azure blue sky or serene calm. Now while it isn’t true that a No vote means instant expulsion from the Eurozone (as Donald Tusk pointed out yesterday), Greece’s privately-owned press has gone into overdrive suggesting it is. Even the No campaign’s poster uses words like ‘dignity, ’ ‘democracy’ and ‘sovereignty’ suggesting that it’s a vote on competing conceptions of Greece’s future, rather than a vote on specific proposals.

3. It provided a pretext for withdrawing ELA.

Varoufakis’s assurance that a No vote would lead to a near instant deal, the return of emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) to Greek banks and therefore the end of capital controls is clearly overly optimistic. Even a strong No vote wouldn’t make the Troika give in just like that. The Troika will hold out, waste time and cause delays because with every day of capital controls, the pressure on Syriza from ordinary Greeks – pensioners, workers, small businesses – gets greater and greater.

The referendum was an excellent pretext for those in the Troika seeking regime change to withdraw ELA and up the ante. We’ve entered the siege period of the Troika’s war on Syriza. The Troika has cut off access to precious resources and all it must do now is wait out the siege until Syriza capitulates or Greeks turn on the government.

4. A narrow victory for the No campaign won’t provide a strong mandate.

Whether the result is Yes or No, it is going to be a close one. Recent polls put No ahead by just 0.5% with a 3% margin of error. But even a narrow No vote isn’t going to give Syriza what it wants: a clear mandate for resisting austerity. With the difference between a Yes or No win being so small, the Troika will use this to prevaricate and suggest Syriza doesn’t have the support of the Greek people. It will suggest that if approximately half the Greek people voted No and don’t support the measures then the other half who voted Yes do support them. Of course this isn’t true: had the question been explicitly on austerity the result would have been a resounding οχι!

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Published 5th July 2015

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