ATHENS – Greece is no stranger to referendums. In fact, the world's first plebiscite was held here in 483 B.C., when Athenian leader Themistocles won a vote to use silver discovered at the port of Laurium to build a fleet of 200 triremes. It set ancient Greece on its way to becoming a maritime superpower. Today, however, the words "Greece" and "superpower" don't even belong in the same sentence. Themistocles's descendants now face the prospect of another referendum -- one that could decide whether Greece's economy will sail on within the eurozone or sink into bankruptcy.
If Greece could pay its debt in units of uncertainty, the crisis would have ended some time ago. Since Athens agreed to an emergency loan package with its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year, Greeks have been living in a permanent state of insecurity, unsure whether their country would avoid bankruptcy, doubtful about its future in the eurozone, and confused about what their own futures might hold. This frustration has led to almost daily protests over the last 18 months by unions, civil servants, and private-sector workers in Athens. Sometimes, protesters have clashed with riot police and, on one occasion last month, between themselves. On Monday, Oct. 31, Prime Minister George Papandreou, who leads the center-left PASOK party, decided to step the uncertainty up a notch or two.
The premier's decision to propose a popular referendum on whether Greece should accept the latest debt deal with eurozone leaders and bankers in Brussels, proposed last week, sent markets tumbling and European leaders scrambling for their phones. In Greece, the reaction was somewhere between shocked and bewildered. Papandreou's motives for proposing the referendum are still somewhat unclear, though it seems concerns about the increasing polarization between the PASOK government and the opposition parties and the prospect of continued popular unrest were uppermost in his mind. "Let each Greek person decide; with a ballot paper in his hand, let each person decide for his country and for himself," Papandreou told parliament. "Democracy is alive and well, and Greeks are being called to rise to a national duty beyond the regular electoral processes."
The prime minister held lengthy talks late on Tuesday with his ministers, many of whom claimed to be in the dark about his motives. Although there was support within the cabinet for the prime minister's surprising move, some ministers objected to the referendum and expressed concern about the exact phrasing of the question that will be posed to voters. The seven-hour meeting ended with ministers agreeing to back the premier over the referendum but asking for the vote to take place as soon as possible.
Papandreou's chances of having an equally straightforward task in convincing the majority of the Greek people to vote yes in the plebiscite are extremely slim. It may seem oddly suicidal to outsiders that Greeks would choose to reject an agreement that reduces the country's debt by some 100 billion euros and provides another 130 billion euros in loans to Athens, thereby securing its funding for the next few years, when it won't be able to access international markets.