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Why the No vote was a triumph of democracy over austerity

Celebrations in full swing after the No vote. EPA/Yannis Kolesidis

The resounding rejection of the unworkable polices demanded by Greece’s lenders in a national referendum held on July 5 is truly momentous for Greece.

Beyond the economic issues at stake in this vote, the democratic processes on display offer new hope not only to the Greek people, but for other countries too. The result is a powerful message to the political establishment that has mismanaged Greece for the last four decades, bringing the country to the brink of catastrophe.

These people, who ruled using corrupt practices and nepotism, all united for the Yes vote in the build-up to the plebiscite. They included no fewer than four former prime ministers, all of whom bear a direct responsibility for Greece’s debt. These men have spoken with one voice in their attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Among these discredited leaders are the socialist Kostas Simitis, who introduced Greece to the eurozone on doctored data, and another socialist, George Papandreou, an inept scion of a political dynasty who negotiated the biggest bailout in history. They also include the conservative Kostas Karamanlis, a beneficiary of nepotism under whose watch the debt spiralled from 98.9% to 129.7% of GDP in less than five years, and the unelected technocrat Loukas Papademos, a former banker who “bailed in” tens of thousands of small depositors in Greece while letting off German and French banks holding Greek bonds.

The referendum result is equally bad news for the oligarch-owned media, which deployed scare tactics to promote its own agenda (including a desire to avoid paying taxes and competitive tendering for the airways that the Syriza government is likely to enforce). This plan clearly backfired, since 61.3% of voters weren’t buying what they were selling.

The resounding No vote has all but obliterated the power held by the handful of political families and oligarchs who have dominated Greek politics for years. It is a vote of confidence in the Syriza-led government, which has no ties to this toxic nexus of corruption and dependency.

Bringing democracy back to Brussels

But the referendum also dealt a heavy blow to European technocrats. The lenders of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who imposed savage and unworkable austerity measures on the Greek society in the past five years in exchange for bailout funds that the country badly needed, were of course hoping for a Yes.

A vote for No is a vote for Greece. EPA/Yannis Kolesidis

Most economists agree that an extension or a further intensification of the disastrous policies forced on Greece would have led to a further contraction of the Greek economy, which has already caused massive unemployment (currently at 26% in the general population and more than 50% among young people).

The Greek government was first to reject the take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum from the lenders and now the electorate has followed. The No vote is therefore a triumph of democracy over diktats dreamed up by unelected officials. It is an opportunity to redefine Greece’s place in the European Union and its future identity for the years to come.

A wider change

While the battle between the Yes and No camps was largely fought between the “haves” and the growing number of the “have nots”, it also brought the demands of younger Greeks to the fore. They crave change that has not been on offer from mainstream parties. Beyond economic stability, many younger voters want citizenship for the children of immigrants and the legalisation of same-sex marriage, for example.

Since Greece’s problems did not begin with Syriza, the current government has the best chance in years of addressing the country’s intractable problems. There is hope that corruption can be stamped out and reforms introduced to improve governance and modernise Greek society.

The tremors will be felt beyond Greece’s borders. The promise of a better tomorrow that never seems to arrive on the condition of more impoverishment today is a familiar concept to many. If Greece is successful, it will offer an alternative to the misanthropy driving eurozone austerity policies. It will enable citizens to have a bigger say in the future of the European project.

This is potentially the most important contribution being made by the democratic processes taking place in Greece. The No vote should give pause to politicians and media all over the world. They should note that they couldn’t tell the Greeks what to do and they can’t stop people holding unelected institutions to account.

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