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By Marco Vicenzino

3 July 2015 

As Greece lingers in limbo in the run-up to its July 5threferendum on Europe, ordinary citizens are still struggling to understand exactly what they are voting for.  Economic paralysis prevails and political and social polarization is mounting.  With only a week to organize the vote, the entire legitimacy of the plebiscite is at stake.  Fundamental questions remain unanswered.  In particular, whether it complies with European and international standards and potentially violates the Greek constitution.


By using a previous deal with Europe which no longer exists as a point of reference, the referendum is amounting to an exercise in semantics.  It begs the question whether the technocratic, convoluted 72-word vote was intentionally manipulated to be practically incomprehensible in favor of the “no” vote.  


The referendum also falls short of standards according to the Council of Europe, the 47-member regional intergovernmental organization which focuses on human rights, democratic development and the rule of law.  Its non-binding guidelines recommend disclosing the referendum’s question at least two weeks before the poll. This provides voters ample time to grasp issues and for the Council to send monitors.  Accordingly, the one-week notice confounds voters and the Council will not have officials present in Greece.  


The hastily arranged referendum will also deprive thousands of Greeks of their fundamental democratic right to vote.  Many urban Greeks are still registered in their communities of origin where they are required to cast their ballots.  These are often remote and not easily accessible locations which require time and money to reach.  With banks shut and limited time to plan journeys, thousands will be unable to vote. Therefore, the considerable reduction in voter participation could potentially favor the “no” vote. 


There is also the Alexis Tsipras factor to take into account.  The prime minister is clearly the advocate-in-chief of the “no” vote.  His charisma, effective communication skills and preaching from the bully-pulpit offer enormous political advantages. However, he is also unduly influencing the referendum process through a frontal assault on the airwaves.  He is trying to create a state of security where none exists. His self-assuring narrative can be summarized in a nutshell: vote “no”, give me a mandate, I will quickly deliver a deal with Europe and the banks will immediately open thereafter.  There is absolutely no certainty to this story line.  In fact, the opposite could actually materialize.  Since assuming power in January 2015, Tsipras has overpromised and under-delivered.  Overall, he has made a bad situation even worse.   


Through his divisive rhetoric, Tsipras is actively engaged in fear-mongering against the “yes” vote.  According to his account, it will amount to slavery for Greece.  The reality is that Greece has no easy way out. It is a matter of choosing the least worst of options.  Regardless of a recent IMF report confirming that Greece needs comprehensive debt relief and more than $66.6 billion in new aid to return to financial health, a “no” vote would still produce no advantages for Tsipras in negotiations with Europe. 


Although most polls point to over 70 percent support for staying in the euro, it may not translate into the referendum’s outcome.  Due to the vote’s technical and procedural shortcomings, the result remains somewhat unpredictable.  Furthermore, fear of Grexit and its contagion effect may already be spilling over into neighbors, particularly Italy.  Its own populist parties are jumping on the anti-Euro bandwagon and threaten to undermine whatever modest economic progress Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has achieved.


When observing the entire referendum process unfold, it smacks of ancient Greek comedy.  However, when considering what’s at stake for ordinary Greek citizens, and the rest of Europe, it clearly amounts to classic Greek tragedy.