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Was the Greek referendum a celebration of democracy?

In theory the answer is yes, since a referendum lends power to the populace to determine their own fate and cast a vote on issues of national importance. From this angle, no one could raise their voice against the decision of the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, to hold a referendum on Sunday, July 5, 2015 whether or not Greece should accept the most recent offer from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank of funding in exchange for Greek budgetary and legal reform measures. However, the question that keeps puzzling me, and which may seem undemocratic at first glance, is whether and, if so, when people should be granted the power to participate in processes that predominantly require expert knowledge and analytical thinking. Due to the perplexity of the structures that the modern world has been built on, people who may lack, even the basic, skills to filter such information have less chances to achieve what they wish.

These thoughts were further encouraged when, a few days after the referendum, while flicking through a book of Ancient Greek proverbs, I came across a phrase that caught my attention. It read in Ancient Greek ‘Μηδείς ἀγεωμέτρητος εἰσίτω’ which approximately translates ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here’ and according to widespread beliefs, probably not to historical facts, it was a phrase engraved at the door of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato places emphasis on the power of knowledge of geometry, which in those days also carried the notions of equality, justice and accuracy, and sets it as a prerequisite for entering the academy. Metaphorically speaking, it could be interpreted as: people should know the facts before they act. Thus, based on this idea, should we not strive for the same principles in order to gain a more functional democracy?

I doubt, judging from my personal experience, that people in Greece were aware of the facts prior to the referendum. Both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns mainly focused on the possible consequences of a certain outcome abstaining from a sincere dialogue on the question itself. Practically, given also the constrained amount of time after its proclamation, this was not possible since the ballot paper contained a question that directed to another multi-page text, which was full of economic terms and correlations, that people should have read and understood in advance using skills that a large proportion of the population does not possess. As a result, different interpretations were formed around the true purpose of the referendum creating a conceptual confusion. Thus, it comes as no surprise that, among others, several jurists argued that the recent referendum failed to meet democratic standards.

Apart from the aforementioned controversial side of the referendum, another of my concerns is the moment it took place. More precisely, during the last five years, Greece has gone through numerous difficult phases caused by rigorous and failed fiscal measures, irresponsible governments in Greece and abroad etc. bringing people (including myself) to despair, making them afraid of an uncertain future and lowering their expectations that life could get back on track anytime soon. Besides, the way people evaluate life events and their surrounding environment is best explained by the ‘narrative paradigm’ which means that our judgment is guided not only by logical argumentation, but also by values, desires and emotions. Taking into account the above, while keeping in mind the current state of the Greek society where agitation and limited trust of the country’s lenders prevail (to give just one example), could we really expect a referendum, under these conditions, to be a celebration of democracy?

Finally we should bear in mind that referendums, as research has shown, can be manipulated by those who set the agenda. Whether this applies to the recent referendum in Greece, however, needs to be examined in depth. My point is that what seems to be an instrument of democracy could possibly be, at the same time, a trap for the electorate. If the latter assumption is true, core democratic values are at stake and we need to remain vigilant. Finally, as I have already mentioned above, the issues of whether and when people should be called to the polls to participate in a referendum are crucial and need thorough examination. Citizens should be encouraged to engage in decision-making processes, but I doubt that the recent referendum offered the Greek people the chance to determine their future in a meaningful way.

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picture Andreas Dafnos is a Junior Research Scholar at the Greek think tank Strategy International. Holding a double Master’s Degree from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and the United Nations University in Public Policy and Human Development, with a specialisation in Risk and Vulnerability, he will, in October, start a PhD in Politics at the University of Sheffield. His main publications are: ‘Narratives as a Means of Countering the Radical Right; Looking into the Trojan T-shirt Project’ and ‘Lone Wolf Terrorism as Category: Learning from the Breivik Case’ published by the Journal EXIT Deutschland. His academic interests cover the fields of radicalisation, extremism and violence and migration.

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