There are 5 vital rules for a good referendum and Greece broke them all

A man walks past anti-Eu graffiti. Photo: Getty Images

If referendums must be held, certain rules are vital, and this weekend Greece broke many of them.

In a glass cabinet in the Acropolis Museum in Athens are some shaped stone pebbles that look like outsized buttons. They are almost 2,500 years old and testify to the world’s first experiment with democracy. Citizens (admittedly only men who met certain criteria) could vote on issues of the day by dropping their pebble into one of two urns, one for “yes”, the other for “no”. (An echo of that era is the word “psephology”, for the study of elections. The word was minted sixty years ago by an Oxford academic, drawing on the Greek word for pebble: “psephos”.)

On Sunday, Greeks voted in a referendum which has been as much a corruption of democracy as their practice of voting two-and-a-half millennia ago was a noble innovation.

This blog does not discuss the rival merits of Grexit or Greece staying in the euro but something that is, or should be, far more important: the operation of democracy.

I have written before about the general dangers of referendums (eg: this Prospect blog). However, if they are to be held, certain rules are vital:

  1. The choice must be clear.
  2. There must be enough time for rival campaigns to organise themselves and make their case.
  3. Those rival campaigns must have fair and, as far as possible, equal access to the electorate.
  4. When the Government of the day seeks a particular outcome, it should not abuse its position (for example by taking sensitive decisions close to polling day, or dominating the airwaves).
  5. The decision is one that settles an issue for years, and preferably decades, to come; referendums should decide fundamental constitutional issues, not immediate economic tactics, however momentous.

Much of the early debate about Britain’s coming in-out referendum on the European Union has concerned the operation of these rules: the wording of the question on the ballot paper, campaign spending limits and the extent to which David Cameron and his ministers should go into policy-purdah in the final weeks.

However, to list those rules is to show how outrageously Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has behaved. The choice was not clear (would a “no” majority mean Grexit or not?), no time has been allowed for rival campaigns to organise, access to the electorate is completely lop-sided and Tsipras was determined to use his position to dominate debate.

Finally, nothing has been settled. Tsipras insisted on Sunday night that his mandate was to negotiate a better deal for Greece within the Eurozone. But what if Greece’s creditors decline to offer such a deal, and either force the country out of the Eurozone or, in essence, refuse to budge on the offer that 61% of Greek voters rejected? Daily life may quickly deteriorate in a way that the “no” majority did not wish or expect. Should we prepare for another referendum next week? If so, why should we expect its mandate to enjoy any greater durability?

These are not trivial issues. The European Union exists in large measure as a reaction against Europe’s twentieth-century communist, fascist and Nazi tyrants – tyrants who frequently used perverted plebiscites to give their regimes the appearance of legitimacy. This weekend’s referendum in Greece looked more like one of those horrors than anything that can be truly called democratic. If this is how Greece is to take big decisions, then the real issue for the rest of our continent is not whether it should remain in the Eurozone but whether it should be allowed to stay in the EU at all.

This blog updates a commentary that appeared last week in Prospect.

This post originally appeared on Peter Kellner is a journalist, political commentator, and president of YouGov. You can find YouGov on Twitter.

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