Referendum as Ragnarok: How Greece's Prime Minister Undid Himself

  • Share
  • Read Later
Eric Feferberg / AFP / Getty Images

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou meets journalists after talks with E.U. and IMF leaders in Cannes, France, on Nov. 2, 2011

For once, the drama didn't unfold during the raucous antiausterity protests on the streets outside Parliament. On Wednesday, the drama inside the Greek Parliament was so charged that it kept Greeks glued to the news, anxious that, by day's end, they wouldn't have a leader, a bailout plan or even a currency.

Prime Minister George Papandreou is still running the country, but his days — his hours even — could be numbered. He faces a crucial confidence vote in Parliament on Friday, and it's not clear whether he has the votes to survive it.

During a debate Wednesday on the confidence vote, he also told lawmakers that he was open to all options, including leaving his post as Prime Minister to help build a coalition government and pave the way for snap elections. "I never excluded any topic from the discussion, not even my own position," Papandreou said.

Papandreou also scrapped his controversial idea to hold a public referendum on the bailout deals hammered out by the European Union. The idea so angered members of his own party that they pressured him to resign. One lawmaker, Milena Apostolaki, left PASOK, Papandreou's socialist party, and called the referendum plan "divisive."

The referendum had, indeed, caused a maelstrom after Papandreou introduced it earlier in the week. He had hoped the public vote — the first since 1974, when Greece voted to abolish the monarchy — would give Greeks a direct voice in the fate of their country. Papandreou had reportedly grown distressed that austerity was hurting Greeks and that the strain of the last year was tearing the country's social fabric.

But instead of welcoming the referendum as a sign of direct democracy, Greeks panicked. Many worried about the repercussions, especially after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded that it be a question about whether Greece wants to stay in the euro zone.

"I haven't been able to sleep since he announced this," says Yiannis Tsarmougelis, an economics professor at the University of the Aegean. "I just don't understand the motive, why he would endanger the country's standing in Europe like this. It seems so reckless to me."

The call for a referendum added even more uncertainty at a time when Greeks can't handle it, says Nikos Paratsiokos, 31, a policy researcher. "We just don't know what's going to happen from minute to minute. We need Europe, and now I'm worried the Europeans are going to lose trust in us now and think we're the poor, backward cousins who can't manage our own affairs."

Antiausterity activists said the referendum should have been held last year, before Greece signed any agreements with the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF). "What's the point of having this now?" asked Christos Hatzis, a 29-year-old activist and radio-show host. "I don't think it's a genuine move. I don't trust Papandreou."

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2