ATHENS (Reuters) - They defied a vast Persian army in 480 BC, rejected Italy’s ultimatum during World War Two and told Europe to take a hike when presented with an unpalatable bailout deal in July, risking Greece’s place in the euro zone.
Greeks celebrate ‘No’ Day, a unique public holiday, on Wednesday, marking the 75th anniversary of Greece’s refusal to let Mussolini send troops across Greek territory, which led to the Nazi German invasion seven months later.
The word ‘Ochi’ (‘No’) has a special place in the national lexicon and psyche.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras invoked that legacy when he made the crucial decision in June to call a referendum to reject bailout terms set by international creditors, only to accept a longer term loan deal days later on stricter conditions.
Interviews with more than half a dozen ministers and aides involved in the crucial turning point in the Greek debt crisis highlight how Tsipras seized on the tradition of saying ‘No’ to escape a seemingly impossible political predicament.
“History clearly played a role,” Labour Minister George Katrougkalos, a constitutional lawyer, told Reuters of the leftist premier’s decision. “Some people tend to accept a necessary evil without fighting. Greeks always try to resist.”
After hours of negotiation with the heads of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank on June 24 on the 13th floor of the EU executive’s hulking Berlaymont headquarters, Tsipras was told the lenders’ proposal was the only option on the table. Otherwise Greece would be left to default, face a bank run and dice with an exit from the euro.
After only a few hours’ sleep, he disclosed his referendum plan to aides but kept them secret from the EU leaders he met. His inner circle had discussed the option before, said former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who favored the idea provided Tsipras respected the result.
“We had been inclined not to call a referendum,” Varoufakis, who was replaced a day after the vote, told Reuters. “It would be very difficult to avoid it being presented mainly by the media as a referendum on the euro. And we didn’t want that.”
Some ministers were skeptical, an attendee said. But all agreed that if the government accepted the deal on offer, the lenders would only keep increasing their demands.
“They want to humiliate us. Each time we say ‘Yes’, they want more,” Tsipras, who did not make himself available for an interview for this story, was quoted as saying by one official.
Pappas, his right-hand man, explained what was at stake politically in the referendum decision.
“It was the only way of survival for us. We were simply without a mandate,” he told Reuters. It allowed Greece to scrap the existing bailout and replace it with a three-year program that clearly included the prospect of debt relief.
If Europe was shocked when Tsipras ditched the negotiations to call the plebiscite, his decision to campaign for a ‘No’ had the whole world puzzling over his true intentions.
“The most glorious pages in this country’s history were pages of courage and virtue,” Tsipras told tens of thousands at a rally in Athens’s central Syntagma Square on July 3. “I urge you to say ‘No’ again!”
Had he campaigned for a ‘Yes’, he would have lost his majority in parliament, with radical leftists jumping ship earlier than they eventually did. That would have plunged the country into deeper turmoil, analysts say.
“If he sided with ‘Yes’ he would have had a political problem. With the ‘No’, he prevailed at home and negotiated the way he wanted abroad,” said pollster Costas Panagopoulos.
In most countries, politicians seek to frame referendum questions so that the outcome they desire is expressed by a positive ‘Yes’ vote. Not so in Greece.
“‘No’... is much more familiar to a nation that suffered under the military junta (1967-1974) and in World War Two,” a person involved in the ‘No’ campaign said.
Angry at an establishment they blame for the country’s crisis, jaded Greeks saw in Tsipras a glimmer of hope. They wanted him to resist but keep the country in the euro.
“In Greek reality, there is this strange syndrome of saying ‘No’ but at the same time desiring all the benefits of a ‘Yes’,” said sociologist Christos Kehagias. “It’s an exceptional case of insanity in modern political history.”
Despite capital controls imposed in June to stem a drain on bank deposits and massive foreign pressure to vote ‘Yes’, the ‘No’ camp secured a resounding 62 percent.
A week later, after a 17-hour long negotiation in Brussels, Tsipras gave in to a package of painful austerity measures and unpopular reforms that kept Greece in the euro zone.
Disillusioned allies and opponents wondered if Tsipras had secretly hoped to lose the vote. A person close to the leader rejected that suggestion: “Tsipras likes to win, he always did.”
Tsipras says his mandate was to keep Greece in the euro and the deal on offer was a form of blackmail. Paradoxically, the ‘No’ vote gives him more leverage to push through the eventual bailout terms, say analysts.
His U-turn angered young supporters. Radical left lawmakers broke ranks, and he had to rely on support from opposition parties to pass the third bailout in parliament.
A month later, he called a snap election. He ran for a seat in Crete, heartland of anti-Nazi partisans in World War Two, and invoked that resistance in every speech.
“Like in July, our people will again say a big ‘No’. ‘No’ to the return of the bankrupt political system!” he told a mass rally in Syntagma Square, two days before the election.
Tsipras was re-elected, this time on a mandate to implement the bailout he had accepted. The rest is history.
Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Paul Taylor and Mark John