Helena Smith Athens Tuesday 30 June 2015
Caught between a history of resistance and defiance and fears of being cast out of the Eurozone, Greeks are facing a dilemma of immense proportions
Greece’s fate hangs in the balance, its government is on the line and its people face a dilemma that no nation would want to confront.
Did Alexis Tsipras, the firebrand leftist in power in Athens, really intend this? Was his decision to call a referendum impetuous or even bone-headed? Or was Europe’s first democratically elected anti-austerian playing at such dark arts when he decided to put the terms of further financial assistance to the popular vote, that he will ultimately go down as a master tactician?
These were among the questions Greeks were asking on Monday as they surveyed the wreckage – both inside and outside their country – prompted by his potentially cataclysmic move.
After five years negotiating their worst crisis in modern times, the appetite of Greeks for more drama is limited. Five turbulent months of sparring with international creditors over the conditions of a reform package that will keep debt-choked Athens afloat has left the economy deadened and most Greeks drained.
Neither alternative – approval or rejection of the troika’s terms – will be easy, and both carry huge risks
With banks closed, capital controls imposed and, it seems, the entire EU against him, Tsipras and his Syriza party now have a battle on their hands that makes those to date look trivial.
On Monday night, as thousands of government supporters poured into Syntagma Square, armed with placards that proclaimed “no”, it was clear the battle lines had been drawn.
Greece, not long healed from the horrors of civil war, is now deeply divided. Overnight, fault lines between left and right have opened up with a ferocity that has shocked many, and which harks back to the bloody 1946-49 internecine feud.
Supporters of the no camp, backed by the government, are denounced as anti-European and proponents of the drachma lobby; supporters of the yes camp as quislings of Wolfgang Schäuble and the German finance minister’s austerity brigade in Berlin.
How the adventure – for that is what the referendum is now being called – will end, nobody knows. How long it will take, and at what cost, nobody knows either.
When the clock strikes midnight on Tuesday, Athens’ access to bailout funds offered by its troika of creditors will officially expire. There is no one, either inside or outside the country, who now believes the Tsipras government will honour a €1.6bn (£1.15bn) debt to the IMF that must also be met before the end of Tuesday.
“Greece finds itself facing disorderly default, the collapse of the banking system, inability to pay its bills, exit from the euro and the European Union,” the political commentator Ioannis Pretenderis said.
“It is confronting an immediate threat to its economic, social and political system which it has elected to live [and] is confronting the ghost of national catastrophe.”
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In short, the country had embarked “on the worst nightmare” imaginable, he said.
Given the choice between the biting austerity that has already brought the country to its knees and leaving the euro, Greeks are the first to say they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In an ideal world, many would vote neither yes or no.
Tsipras is boxed in and may well be regretting his decision, but unless he is granted major face-saving concessions and a ground-breaking pledge by both the EU and IMF to tackle Athens’ unsustainable debt burden, he will not back down.
The young leader, whose election in January was itself an expression of the no vote, is riding high in the polls, with both his personal popularity ratings and Syriza’s at record levels.
He can count on deep wells of anti-German, anti-European and anti-western sentiment that five years of relentless austerity have done much to fuel. Unions big and small, irate Syriza militants and the fast growing anti-capitalist left have announced strikes, protests, gatherings, factory visits and leafleting expeditions to rally support for the no vote.
The new poor, created by the crisis and attracted to the shrill anti-austerity rhetoric of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and the populist right-wing Independent Greeks party, Syriza’s junior partner in government, can also be relied on for support.
Governments of France, Germany and Italy all warn that Greeks are voting on their Eurozone membership on Sunday, as banks remain shut
It remains to be seen which way the orthodox communist KKE party will sway, if it will tell followers to abstain or come out in favour of a no vote – but militant unionists have already hinted they will do the latter.
“The no camp will also be nurtured by the underdog complex of Greeks and their traditional sense of victimhood,” says Nikos Dimou, author of the bestselling book On the Unhappiness of Being Greek.
“Greeks always blame others for their problems. In my own life, I have seen the English, Americans and Germans blamed for all our woes,” he said.
“This ‘no’ that we are seeing has been deliberately cultivated by Syriza’s masterful propaganda machine from its first day in office.”
Greece’s fate has more than once been decided by its people saying no. In a nation whose history has been defined by resistance, almost no word is as historically charged, starting with the heroic oxi that pushed the country into the second world war.
On that occasion the Greeks, reacting to an ultimatum from Mussolini, valiantly repulsed invading Italian forces. Unlike the Spanish, Irish and Portuguese, Greeks see rejectionist almost as a way of life.
Resistance to austerity is now running at an all-time high, with widespread consensus over the failure of the foreign-imposed measures adopted so far, but Tsipras will also face the wrath and determination of those who rightly fear their country has almost everything to lose if it leaves the euro.
“If Greeks sense that what is at stake is their place in the EU, they will vote yes,” said Harry Papasotiriou, professor of international relations at Panteion University. “The chaos of banks being closed will show that much is at stake. It will focus minds.”
Tsipras has vehemently denied that the referendum is about deciding whether Greece will remain in the euro or re-embrace the drachma. For the leftist government it is simply about austerity.
That is not, however, how it is seen in Europe. In the days ahead he will be up against the full force of European solidarity backing the yes camp – and if on Sunday he fails to get his vote, he will resign and take the back seat that so many in Europe now want him to take.