Democracy International: What is the current state of direct democracy in Greece?
Petros Vourlis: The answer is straight forward: There is no direct democracy in Greece. In Greece’s modern history, there have been seven plebiscites: The first four were held on the question of whether to re-introduce the monarchy. We also had two plebiscites during the seven years of military junta: one plebiscite took place in 1968 on a new Greek constitution; the other one was held during Papadopoulos’ Dictatorship. The last plebiscite in Greece happened in 1974 (just after the fall of dictatorship): almost 7 out of 10 then voted against the monarchy. The plebiscites were initiated by the ruling class, not by the people themselves. That is why we cannot talk of direct democracy in Greece.
So what are your goals? What kind of direct democracy do you want to see realised?
Democracy starts at home. It is the way you live with your wife and children, your neighbour and your community. And then of course there is the bigger picture of politics in the nation state. People must have the right to initiate legislation and to refuse the laws that they do not want at local and national level. We need citizen-initiated referenda in order to minimise the power of Greece’s political parties, which is far too strong. Also any constitutional changes must be accepted by citizens with a mandatory referendum.
How should the procedure of direct democracy look like?
I am very much in favour of using the Swiss model of direct democracy, which also has a very strong bottom-up approach. The Swiss model has been in practice for about 150 years, so there are many things we can learn from Switzerland. Yet of course you cannot copy any political system from any place or any time into your society but there are a lot of things for inspiration from Switzerland.
Which difficulties do you face in Greece in your work for more direct democracy?
Direct democracy and the idea of democracy in general are very unknown in Greece. This sounds ironic when you think of that direct democracy was actually born in Greece. Today, Greece resembles an oligarchy with a few political parties in power. The prime minister acts like a king who can do whatever he wants. In view of this weak understanding of (direct) democracy, it is difficult to find like-minded allies and organisations you can work with together. For my group of democracy activists this actually means to start with the very basics: To explain and to inform about the meaning of direct democracy and then to build a strong alliance. There are also some groups like the Initiative for a Radical Constitutional Change, Klirosi and others talking about referenda but we need to work hard in order to inform all Greeks about direct democracy’s instruments and the power direct democracy can unfold.
In November 2011 Papandreou, Greek prime minister at the time, announced to hold a plebiscite on the European Union’s financial measures for Greece. But then he took back his announcement. What do you think of this move?
Overall I think it would have been much better if Papandreou had held a plebiscite right at the start of the financial and political crisis in Greece. People should have been asked if they want to borrow money from the EU and the IMF and to have the Euro. The common narrative almost by any political party and the mass media was that we have to borrow money and to adopt austerity measures. We were told that there was not any other choice, leaving the Euro would have meant a drachma nightmare. So I think that Papandreou’s move in 2011 was already too late. At that time he didn’t have the political power to ask for a plebiscite. Though it is interesting that no political party supported his proposal, which clearly showed that no political party was in favour of people’s will and expression. This is our major problem. To be fair with Papandreou we have to admit that at least he used the word ‘referendum’ (although it was just a plebiscite). The word referendum is never used by the political parties and the media. Overall, today’s situation in Greece is dreadful. Hardly any money goes to society. People are getting poorer and poorer. If there was real direct democracy in Greece, people themselves could initiate legislation on how to distribute public finances. Instead right now, people do not have the option to decide or to influence decisions at all. People are driven into a situation that is very difficult to bear.
On Petros Vourlis and his Greek translation of the book “Direct Democracy. Facts and Arguments about the introduction of initiative and referendum” (in Greek) at http://referendumsforgreece.wordpress.com
Questions by Cora Pfafferott