Greece’s “No” is No Victory for Democracy

PARIS – Despite what many are saying – especially those who do not have to bear the consequences of their words – Greek voters’ rejection on Sunday of the latest bailout offer from their country’s creditors did not represent a “victory for democracy.” For democracy, as the Greeks know better than anyone, is a matter of mediation, representation, and orderly delegation of power. It is not ordinarily a matter of referendum.

Democracy becomes a matter of referendum only in exceptional circumstances: when elected leaders run out of ideas, when they have lost the confidence of their electorate, or when the usual approaches have ceased to work. Was that the case in Greece? Was the position of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras so weak that he had no better choice than to pass the buck to his people by resorting to the extraordinary form of democracy that is democracy by referendum? What would happen if Greece’s partners, each time they confronted a decision that they lacked the courage to make, broke off discussions and demanded a week to allow the people to decide?

It is often said – and rightly so – that Europe is too bureaucratic, too unwieldy, too slow to make decisions. The least that can be said is that Tsipras’s approach does not make up for these defects. (Much more could be said, if it inspires Spanish citizens to take the risky decision of electing a government led by their own anti-austerity party, Podemos.)

Putting this aside, let us suppose that the decision before Tsipras was so crucial and complex that it merited the exceptional step of referendum. In that case, the event should have reflected that complexity. It should have been a careful and deliberate sounding out of the will of the people. It should have been organized and carried out with due respect for the stakes involved, with the government ensuring that adequate information was relayed to the Greek people.