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Foreign Policy: The Hemlock Ballot

Author: Nick Malkoutzis
November 2, 2011


Nick Malkoutzis argues that Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's call for a popular referendum on the debt deal is counterproductive at best and self-destructive at worst.

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.

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