The real question being asked of Greek voters in the referendum

Team no. EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is pushing ahead with plans to hold a referendum on the terms set by his country’s creditors for repaying its debts.

The July 5 vote will see Greek citizens attempting to answer a highly complicated, 70-plus-word question that even the best informed of them could struggle to understand. But as with all referendums, the result will hinge less on the question being asked and more on how the question is presented by the opposing sides.

The way the issue at stake is framed will play a key role in determining the outcome of the poll. Whatever the question on the ballot paper says, the referendum will be won or lost on whether it is seen as a deal or about membership of the eurozone.

Most EU referendums have been either over European treaties or about questions of membership – whether it be acceding to the EU or joining the euro. They have always been about European deals struck by governments and put to voters for approval. The governments in question have therefore been campaigning for a Yes.

In contrast, the Greek government is campaigning for a No. As far as Syriza is concerned, the vote is not a membership referendum but one about the terms of a European deal it opposes. However, the referendum looks likely to turn into a membership question, whatever Syriza thinks it is.

Why a referendum?

The Greek government has called the referendum for a number of reasons. It might seem like the goal is to strengthen its negotiating hand but this hand has already been played. The referendum is being held effectively after the deadline has passed.

If the government had hoped the referendum announcement would scare its European partners into some last-minute concessions, it was a major blunder. Tsipras wasted whatever political capital he still had in Europe by pulling the referendum out of the hat as a complete surprise and by making clear that his government would campaign against the deal.

More fundamentally, the government has failed to appreciate that the referendum only brings bargaining power if the European partners feel they have a great deal to lose from a No vote. European governments have accepted that they might have to contemplate a Grexit and have already made that clear. That should act as a strong signal that the assumption that the referendum will put pressure on the rest of the EU no longer holds. In fact the pressure has now come onto the Greek government.

Team yes. EPA/Simela Pantzartzi

So what, then, does the Greek government hope to get out of the move? For one thing, if the Greek public rejects austerity measures in the vote, Syriza will have post-hoc legitimation of its decision to walk away from the deal on the table.

What’s more, looking at the perilous state of an economy with banks closed and breath collectively held, it is not difficult to imagine the Greek voters opting to support their government as it thumbs its nose at a deal that offers only temporary relief at the price of higher suffering.

If, on the other hand, the Greeks vote Yes, the referendum will at least have deflected the blame for further austerity measures away from the government. And given that many members of Syriza are fundamentally opposed to austerity, this appears to be a crucial prerequisite if the government is to implement a European deal and hold the party together.

Ironically then, should Syriza survive a Yes vote politically, its reputation as a sceptic of European medicine will put it in a better position to push a deal through the domestic parliament – if it decides it wants to.

Simple answers to difficult questions

The Greek government is more likely to succeed in getting the No result it wants if the vote is seen as a decision on the terms of the European package. But if the issue is framed more broadly in terms of membership of the euro, then this could be decisive in favour of the Yes side. Opinion polls do, after all, show the majority of Greeks want to keep the single currency.

Such a broad frame may also benefit the Yes campaign because it makes the No vote appear the far riskier option. If Yes means staying in the euro, then voters would be opting to keep the status quo. As a general rule, voters tend to prefer what is considered the safer option in referendums, particularly at times of high uncertainty.

Along these lines, the framing contest is in full swing. European leaders including Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, have already called on Greek voters to consider that they are effectively voting on their membership of the euro, and that they want them to stay in. Putting the referendum as a choice between the euro and the drachma, the bet is that voters will not go for the drachma.

Referendums look straightforward. That’s why they often seem an attractive solution to important issues. They give simple answers to difficult questions. But the question is not simply what is written on the ballot paper. The real contest in this vote will not be who will win the referendum, but rather what the referendum, and its result are really about.

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