Beyond debt and austerity: What is happening in Greece is a slap in the face for democracy

By Christine Huebner and Götz Harald Frommholz.

As much has been written on the situation in Greece as there are people with different opinions out there. On Twitter only, more than a million tweets tagged #Greece have been sent in the past four weeks, with a peak of 120.000 tweets on Sunday, referendum day, alone. Opinions on what should be done to end the lengthy struggle on Greek public debt abound, calling for anything ranging from immediate waiving of all debt to scheduled reform coupled with a payback agenda.

Tweets per day with the Hashtag #Greece (period June 7, 2015 - July 7, 2015, via Topsy)

Tweets per day with the Hashtag #Greece (period June 7, 2015 – July 7, 2015, via Topsy)


Beyond the political debate, however, few have commented on the wider inference of what is happening in and to Greece at the moment: on how the constant struggle for Greek debt relief and reform is alienating voters in- and outside of Greece. What has been unfolding around Greece and its creditors in the past weeks is a slap in the face for any citizen and the democratic principle. Three reasons why:

  1. There is intransparency in political decision making.
  2. There is a lack of (understandable) information.
  3. Actions are driven by ideology rather than by visible problem-solving capacity.


The political tug of war on Greece’s potential debt default has been opaque to citizens – no matter which of the countries involved you hail from. Nightly emergency summits and last-minute bailouts have become a standard theme over the past years. With citizens this leaves but one impression: no time for explanations! Last week’s sudden turn of events is sadly in line with this theme: Alexis Tsipras’ move to schedule a vote among the Greek people on whether to accept or reject its creditors’ demands for reform came as much out of the blue as any previous EFSF bailout decision. Not only did it take EU politicians by surprise. It also alienated some of Tsipras’ fellow citizens at home.

A meagre seven days from announcing to holding a referendum is barely enough time to print and distribute those 10 million ballots that were necessary for Sunday’s vote. It certainly is not enough time to debate the proper wording of the ballot question in parliament. It does also not leave sufficient time for the Greek population to get informed and discuss what to vote for. The overwhelming media presence of Tsipras and his government campaigning for a “No” vote left little room for the opposition to effectively campaign for another outcome. This resulted in an asymmetry of information that can – at best – be described as imbalanced.

The build-up to this Sunday’s referendum is best contrasted by another event: the referendum on Scottish independence. Its aftermath serves proof of how beneficial transparency prior to a public vote can be. In the days after the referendum in September 2014 Scottish political parties reported a sudden rise in membership. Some even have four times as many members as prior to the referendum today. There are various reasons for this surge in party membership, including one: After two years of debating the pro’s and con’s of leaving the Union in every pub and at every party, Scots had gotten interested in politics. Latest survey research by our colleague Jan Eichhorn and his team at the University of Edinburgh shows that months after the referendum a significant proportion of Scots are still more interested in politics than their English, Irish or Welsh fellow citizens.

In contrast, with less than seven days to campaign the referendum in Greece had no chance to trigger a proper political discourse – no matter how politicized the Greek are by now. Instead, the referendum will most likely remain a prime example of how this particular tool of direct democracy can be misused for a vote of confidence in a game of political pressure.

Lack of understandable information

A fundamental rule of applying tools of direct democracy is to ensure that citizens have all relevant information to make a decision. Easily understandable materials on the matter at hand are a must-have. The same holds for a fair and balanced referendum question. Yet another look at the two years prior to the referendum on Scottish Independence proves that it is not exactly a walk in the park to provide such a balanced referendum question: it took several iterations and commissions to figure it out in the Scottish example.

Let us take a look at the translation of the Greek ballot paper

“Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June, 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled “reforms for the completion of the current programme and beyond” and the second “Preliminary debt sustainability analysis”.

This is the ballot paper for the 2015 Greek bailout referendum, found on the official website of the Greek Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reconstruction (OXI = No, NAI = Yes, Source: Greek Government). Voters had to check one of two boxes – “not approved/no” or, below it, “approved/yes“.

This is the ballot paper for the 2015 Greek bailout referendum, found on the official website of the Greek Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reconstruction. (OXI = No NAI = Yes). Author: Greek Government

… and at what voters thought of it (via Gregory Katz and Theodora Mavropoulos, Associated Press):

Yanis Koutzouvelis, 19: “I understand the question in general but the question is not clear because we don’t know the consequences of voting ‘no’ and we don’t know if it means going out of the eurozone. I mean I don’t know in the end if the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ is in reference to the drachma (Greek’s former national currency) or not. I will look at a lot of television and radio news but it’s super-difficult to understand what it really means.

Andreas Simeou, 56: “With that question the government misleads the people. It’s not the fault of the Greek people. Now the government is giving the whole weight to the people and it always says it’s someone else’s fault that everything is a mess here.

The result of a lack of understandable information is that many Greeks allegedly did not realize the consequences of Sunday’s vote.

The use of ideology

Just like Sunday’s ballot the rest of the campaign lacked understandable information. What is more: there was obvious pressure applied on the Greek people that had nothing to do with impartial information. In a situation in which it is almost impossible to make an informed decision due to the lack of time and transparent information, it is not helping if (now) former Greek Minister of Finance, Yannis Varoufakis, describes the EU institutions’ policy as “terrorism”. The rhetoric used by Tsipras and his team left no doubt of where public opinion ought to be moved to: the Greek people had no choice but to vote “no”. Likewise, media outlets across various European countries – first and foremost Germany – did not miss a chance to illustrate the (all but negative) consequences of a Greek No-vote: an immediate exit from the Eurozone and dramatic decline of economic activity in a hell-breaking-loose like scenario.

Why is there so much calling on emotions on all sides instead of on informed decision-making? It seems that ideology plays a fundamental role in this crisis. What first seemed to be a battle of economic ideologies – austerity vs. investment – has been turned into an even bigger battlefield of capitalism vs. communism. So far, neither the current Greek government nor foreign media have missed an opportunity to state: “It is us versus them”. And this is a problem. It is impossible to negotiate with an ideology. Citizens have a hard time to cut through it. Two opposing ideologies in a negotiation have to end in a deadlock that features no serious problem-solving capacity and leaves citizens in the obscure mess of having to figure out what is right or wrong.

What would be an alternative way out of this deadlock? The European Commission published a document listing all measures for the stabilisation of Greek public debt. This is the sort of information that the Greek people desperately needed in order to deconstruct the scenario of fear and misinformation by their government and foreign media. And it could have been the ideal basis for a proper political discourse involving Greek and EU citizens alike.

Christine Hübner and Götz Harald Frommholz are partners at d|part.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Title picture: ‘Double trouble’ courtesy of Theophilos Papadopoulos via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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