Greece’s “No” is no vic­tory for democ­racy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

De­spite what many are say­ing – es­pe­cially those who do not have to bear the con­se­quences of their words – Greek vot­ers’ rejection on Sun­day of the latest bailout of­fer from their coun­try’s cred­i­tors did not rep­re­sent a “vic­tory for democ­racy.” For democ­racy, as the Greeks know bet­ter than any­one, is a mat­ter of me­di­a­tion, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and or­derly del­e­ga­tion of power. It is not or­di­nar­ily a mat­ter of ref­er­en­dum.

Democ­racy be­comes a mat­ter of ref­er­en­dum only in ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances: when elected lead­ers run out of ideas, when they have lost the con­fi­dence of their elec­torate, or when the usual ap­proaches have ceased to work. Was that the case in Greece? Was the po­si­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras so weak that he had no bet­ter choice than to pass the buck to his peo­ple by re­sort­ing to the ex­tra­or­di­nary form of democ­racy that is democ­racy by ref­er­en­dum? What would hap­pen if Greece’s part­ners, each time they con­fronted a de­ci­sion that they lacked the courage to make, broke off dis­cus­sions and de­manded a week to al­low the peo­ple to de­cide?

It is of­ten said – and rightly so – that Europe is too bu­reau­cratic, too un­wieldy, too slow to make de­ci­sions. The least that can be said is that Tsipras’s ap­proach does not make up for these de­fects. (Much more could be said, if it inspires Span­ish cit­i­zens to take the risky de­ci­sion of elect­ing a gov­ern­ment led by their own anti-aus­ter­ity party, Pode­mos.)

Putting this aside, let us sup­pose that the de­ci­sion be­fore Tsipras was so cru­cial and com­plex that it mer­ited the ex­cep­tional step of ref­er­en­dum. In that case, the event should have re­flected that com­plex­ity. It should have been a care­ful and de­lib­er­ate sound­ing out of the will of the peo­ple. It should have been or­gan­ised and car­ried out with due re­spect for the stakes in­volved, with the gov­ern­ment en­sur­ing that ad­e­quate in­for­ma­tion was re­layed to the Greek peo­ple.

In­stead, Greece got a hastily ar­ranged ref­er­en­dum. It got an opaque – in­deed, a down­right in­com­pre­hen­si­ble – ref­er­en­dum ques­tion. It got no public-in­for­ma­tion cam­paign wor­thy of the name. It got an ap­peal for a “No” vote that no one un­der­stood; the de­tails of the pro­pos­als that Greek vot­ers were sup­posed to re­ject were not even dis­closed to them.

An­cient Greek had two words for the peo­ple: the “demos” of democ­racy and the “laos” of the mob. With his puerile call to shift the bur­den of his own er­rors and his re­luc­tance to re­form onto the shoul­ders of Greece’s fel­low Euro­peans, Tsipras is lean­ing to­ward the lat­ter man­i­fes­ta­tion – and pro­mot­ing the worst ver­sion of Greek pol­i­tics.

Tsipras might de­fend his ap­proach to the ref­er­en­dum by as­sert­ing that his goal was not so much to sound out the peo­ple as to re­in­force his po­si­tion in the con­fronta­tion with Greece’s cred­i­tors. But what is the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for that con­fronta­tion? That they had the au­dac­ity to de­mand progress to­ward the rule of law and so­cial jus­tice, as well as ef­forts to tame Greece’s ship­ping mag­nates and its tax­avoid­ing clergy?

The Euro­pean Union has achieved peace pre­cisely by learn­ing, grad­u­ally, to re­place the old logic of con­fronta­tion and con­flict with that of ne­go­ti­a­tion and com­pro­mise. De­spite its de­fects, the EU has be­come a lab­o­ra­tory of demo­cratic in­no­va­tion, in which, for the first time in cen­turies, an at­tempt is be­ing made to set­tle dif­fer­ences not by po­lit­i­cal war and black­mail but by lis­ten­ing, di­a­logue, and a syn­the­sis of dif­fer­ent points of view.

In this sense, the Greek ref­er­en­dum de­liv­ered an in­sult to 18 coun­tries, in­clud­ing some that are in sit­u­a­tions no less dif­fi­cult than Greece’s, and yet have made con­sid­er­able sac­ri­fices to grant the coun­try, in 2012 alone, 105 bil­lion eu­ros in debt re­lief while re­main­ing ac­count­able to their own pop­u­la­tions. What twist of the mind en­ables one to call that an “act of re­sis­tance” or the “de­fense of democ­racy?”

Yet many have. In­deed, since the ref­er­en­dum, many have acted as if Tsipras were the last eu­ro­zone demo­crat, as if he had faced a “to­tal­i­tar­ian” clique (as de­scribed by the far-right French politi­cian Marine Le Pen) against which he valiantly “stood firm” (in the words of far-left politi­cian Jean-Luc Mé­len­chon).

I will not dwell on Tsipras’s par­lia­men­tary al­liance with the con­spir­acy-minded, right-wing In­de­pen­dent Greeks, whose lead­ers do not shy away from di­a­tribes against ho­mo­sex­u­als, Bud­dhists, Jews and Mus­lims. Nor will I dwell on the fact that Tsipras did not re­frain, when as­sem­bling par­lia­men­tary sup­port for his ref­er­en­dum, from so­lic­it­ing the sup­port of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, whose help any other Euro­pean leader would have re­jected.

In­stead, I will em­pha­sise the fact that Tsipras’s fel­low Euro­pean lead­ers are no less demo­cratic or le­git­i­mate than he. The coun­tries of cen­tral Europe that en­dured Nazi and Soviet to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism do not need lessons in le­git­i­macy from any­one – es­pe­cially not the Greek prime min­is­ter. The brave Baltic coun­tries – the “le­gal­ity” of whose in­de­pen­dence is re­port­edly be­ing re­viewed by Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, another un­sa­vory pal of Tsipras – have not yielded to panic or suc­cumbed to the temp­ta­tion to bur­den oth­ers with their mis­for­tune. They are not us­ing their strug­gles as a pre­text to de­fault on their duty of sol­i­dar­ity with Greece.

None of this means that we should write off Greece’s EU mem­ber­ship. In other times, the Greeks paid dearly for their “No” to Nazism and their “No” to mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. Noth­ing would be sad­der than to see them also have to pay for last Sun­day’s “No” – a far­ci­cal sim­u­la­tion of those ear­lier noble acts of de­fi­ance.

May eu­ro­zone lead­ers have the for­bear­ance to recog­nise the flawed “No” that has been de­liv­ered, and to be more Greek than the Greeks. May they act in a way that pre­vents Greece from ever hav­ing to face the true, tragic mean­ing of Sun­day’s vote.

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