Alexis Tsipras is gambling his political future as Greece’s prime minister on a hastily called referendum that could all too easily backfire.
Next Sunday’s vote on a failed Greek bailout proposal has divided constitutional experts over its legitimacy and left bureaucrats scrambling to arrange the logistics of holding the country’s first plebiscite in more than 40 years.
It is also puzzling and confusing voters.
“Greece is holding a referendum on a proposal that no longer exists for a bad programme that by then will have expired,” said Yannos, a business consultant who declined to give his second name. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Mr Tsipras has urged a “no” vote to endorse his leftwing government’s rejection of “blackmail” by the country’s creditors to apply further harsh austerity measures in return for a €15.3bn bailout. At the same time he has said he would respect a “yes” result.
One opinion poll conducted before the referendum was announced and published at the weekend suggested 57 per cent of Greeks were prepared to put up with more economic pain as the price of rescuing the economy and staying in the euro.
With default looming on a loan payment to the International Monetary Fund and capital controls imposed this week, patience with the leftwing Syriza government is starting to run out.
“There’s a sense even among its supporters that the government has lost control of the situation,” said Angeliki, an importer of hotel equipment.
A mood of rising fear and anger swept the country over the weekend as bank cash machines ran empty and long lines of vehicles formed outside petrol stations.
“These are extreme conditions that are likely to make anxious voters rally behind the opposition pro-Europe parties urging a “yes”, said a pollster who declined to be named.
Aris Hatzis, an Athens University professor and political commentator, said Mr Tsipras had miscalculated. By rejecting the latest bailout offer on Friday at a critical stage of the negotiations Mr Hatzis argues creditors were poised to make concessions that could have swung Mr Tsipras’s ruling Syriza party behind the deal.
“After weeks of intense pressure from both the creditors and his own party, he suddenly went over the edge . . . He followed his leftwing instincts. He acted impetuously,” Mr Hatzis said.
The consequences could be disastrous for the 40-year-old prime minister. If the government loses the vote even by a small margin Mr Tsipras would be obliged to resign as premier and call a general election. The alternative would be for the premier to lead negotiations on forming a coalition government with pro-reform parties with a mandate to rebuild relations with European partners and ensure that Greece can remain in the euro.
In that case Mr Tsipras would run the risk of being replaced as prime minister by a prominent non-political figure from Greek public life.
Some observers believe the government has a chance of pulling off a narrow victory, based on support from young voters, public sector workers and retirees grateful for Mr Tsipras’s fierce opposition during the bailout talks to cutting pensions and special benefits.
The far-left faction in Syriza was gearing up on Sunday to campaign for a “no” vote by promoting their vision of leaving the eurozone, readopting the drachma and seeking special relationships with Russia and China.
“This is the moment of we’ve been waiting for, a chance to let the people decide,” said Alekos, a member of the Communist Tendency, an extreme faction in Syriza.” The problem is that there’s so little time to take the message to the countryside.”
Syriza’s power base is concentrated in Athens and Thessaloniki, the two biggest cities where the effects of a six-year recession are most keenly felt. A low turnout would favour a “no” vote, the pollster said.
Mr Hatzis said that if the vote is properly organised, a high turnout should be expected.
“A ‘no’ vote would effectively give Mr Tsipras a mandate to begin the process of leaving the eurozone,” he said. “That’s not something voters will take lightly.”
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