The bankers and finance ministers of Europe, and their allies on Wall Street and in Washington, framed Greece’s referendum vote on whether to accept or reject austerity in stark economic terms.
But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras framed the fight in entirely different terms—those of a struggle to renew democracy. And the Syriza leader and Greece’s anti-austerity government won on those terms.
Tsipras argued that the Greek people had a right to vote for a future that was different from the one dictated by distant bankers and bureaucrats.
The Greeks agreed with their elected leader, voting by an overwhelming 60-40 margin to reject the terms demanded—primarily by Germany and the International Monetary Fund—that the Greeks accept new austerity cuts in return for an extension of bailout funds. There is no question that, as The Guardian’s headline declares, Greece’s “no” vote “signals [a] huge challenge to eurozone leaders.”
But what will be portrayed in much of the media as a crisis is also an opportunity. There is an opening here for ending failed austerity policies and developing a more humane and functional economics that combines development, growth, and economic responsibility. This is what the voters of Greece want, and it is what Tsipras and his ministers are proposing.
Finally, there is a chance to bring the people into the process. That is a chance that should be taken—not merely as a means of opposing austerity but in order to renew democracy.
Amid the fury over the outcome, no one should lose sight of the importance of the vote itself. The Greek decision, made in the face of enormous pressure to accept the demands of the bankers and bureaucrats, was a victory for democracy. And Americans should support the Greeks as they seek to carve out a place for citizens and nation states in the new economic arrangements of the 21st century.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gets that this is about more than one country. “I applaud the people of Greece for saying ‘no’ to more austerity for the the poor, the children, the sick and the elderly,” says the contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. “In a world of massive wealth and income inequality Europe must support Greece’s efforts to build an economy which creates more jobs and income, not more unemployment and suffering.”
Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families movement, gets the point as well. “Greece—the birthplace of democracy—is making a simple request: ‘Let our people vote on this proposal,’” explains Cantor. “We can’t allow these global finance titans to blackmail Greece’s democracy with their wealth. The U.S. controls the most votes on the board of the International Monetary Fund, and can use its influence to soften negotiations with Greece.”