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Referendum hinges on how Greeks frame austerity question

The European Union and Greek flags fly near the Parthenon in Athens on Oct. 31, 2011.

Angelos Tzortzinis/Bloomberg

The decision by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to have a referendum about the choices facing his country is either a stunning act of political recklessness or a careful calculation as to the best way forward, given an awful set of choices. The Greek people, and the rest of us, won't know which it turns out to be for a while to come.

Referenda are tricky beasts. Years ago, I did a bit of research on how they work generally in democracies, around about the time of the Charlottetown Accord referendum in Canada. One thing that struck me from that research was that when people have a choice between embracing change by voting yes, and defaulting to the status quo and voting no, the no side wins more often than one might think.

This is due to a lot of factors, but the overarching theme is that advocates of even a popular new idea must defend it against media coverage, which tends to accentuate conflict, and against a variety of criticisms from a wide range of critics, none of whom usually share the same responsibility to offer an alternative. In other words, a "yes" vote can require a leap of faith, while a "no" can feel calming and safe.

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For the proponents of the Greek austerity measures, then, the challenge will be to define the ballot question with great care.

For the Papandreou government to succeed, it must ensure that rejecting the austerity measures, (which polls reportedly show are broadly unpopular) cannot be allowed to feel like a risk-free alternative. They must frame a choice between bad and truly awful, as in "austerity or bankruptcy" or "austerity or poverty." Opponents of the government's package must be challenged at every turn to explain and defend an alternative scenario for dealing with Greece's debt, and to provide a cogent case as to why and how it would work.

If the Greek government allows a referendum that feels simply like an opportunity to reject an unpalatable package, with voters being able to cling to some vague hope that a Plan B would emerge from the rubble, there is a great risk that the government's plan will be defeated, sending the world's leaders back to the drawing board and dialing up the global economic chaos.

Based on all of this, it's easy to say that this referendum is a lousy idea, that the Greek government has abdicated responsibility and is rolling the dice with the economic well being of so many others on the line.

However, if somehow the government can emerge from this referendum with a mandate to proceed, there is a chance that this would quell the strikes and domestic confrontations, which of course are a barrier to a Greek economic renewal, and in point of fact are making the country's economic problems worse. So, having launched this course, the next critical step will be a determination as to what the Greek people will be asked to vote on, an austerity package, continued use of the Euro, or some other test. The campaign that ensues will be one to watch.

For better or for worse, this one vote in a country of about 11 million people puts the role of democracy, in the place that gave it birth, at the centre of the global stage.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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