Europe

The Greek referendum question makes (almost) no sense

  • 29 June 2015
  • From the section Europe

The wording of the Greek debt referendum has been released, and it's a bit of a thinker.

For those who can't read Greek, here's a translation.

For those who can't read Greekdebtspeak, well, you're on your own.

The two appendix documents - "Reforms for the completion of the current programme and beyond" and "Preliminary debt sustainability analysis" - don't sound much more easily digestible than the ballot.

There is still a question over when and how voters will be presented with those documents, and whether world-class economists will be on hand at polling stations to explain them.

There was predictable scorn on Twitter

Image copyright Twitter

Canada actually introduced an act of parliament to avoid exactly these kinds of questions being put to the public. After two long and convoluted referendum ballots on Quebec independence in 1980 and 1995, the "Clarity Act" stipulated that an independence referendum must be essentially: "Do you want independence, yes or no?"

No or yes?

As well as being a little bit dense, the Greek ballot also controversially puts the "No" option - favoured by the Greek government - above the yes option, leading some to accuse it of bias.

It is an "unusual" format, said Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the UK Electoral Reform Society.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Not the actual Greek ballot

In the case of the Greek ballot, the no-before-yes format may be offset by the question reading: "Should the [agreement] be accepted" instead of "accepted or rejected", Ms Ghose said.

Yes or no?

The Greek ballot wouldn't be the first accused of being not quite up to scratch on the no-bias front, and there are arguably worse examples in history.

In 1978, after being accused of human rights violations by the UN, Chile's General Pinochet held a referendum to ask the people whether they supported his policies. The "Yes" box was a Chilean flag, the "No" box - ever so slightly lower - was a solid black rectangle.

Image copyright None
Image caption "Si"

Pinochet won by a cool 78.6%.

And back in 1938, Adolf Hitler balloted the German people to ask: "Do you approve of the reunification of Austria with the German Reich accomplished on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the list of our Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler?"

The ballot paper had a subtly leading format.

Image copyright None

Hitler won with an even cooler 99.7%.

No waffling, please

When the UK government prepares a referendum question, the Electoral Commission takes 12 weeks to test the question on focus groups to eliminate any bias or confusion.

A draft of the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU was rewritten because it confused a significant minority of people who didn't know the UK was already a member.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A draft referendum question on the UK leaving the EU assumed people knew the UK was in the EU - mistake

As well as bias, the question is tested for clarity, said the Electoral Commission's Rosie Davenport.

"We look at length of the question. There is a guideline for the number of words," she said.

"The aim is to make the question as as clear and concise as possible, so you're not presenting people with a lot of waffly information before they vote."

'The real choice will be known'

Which brings us back to Greece. Athens did not have the luxury of a 12-week testing period - it has to organise a national referendum at breathtaking speed - but it might be accused of waffle.

"This referendum's emergency nature gives little time to prepare the arguments for either side, and the question is enormously detailed, essentially asking Greeks if they will accept the specific document-based proposals from the IMF, ECB and European Commission," said Ms Ghose.

Image copyright Twitter

With such a short time for the people of Greece to make up their minds, what they are being told by politicians will have more of an effect than usual, Ms Ghose said.

"Given the short time span with this referendum, party cues may matter even more than usual; millions will be listening to what party leaders have to say and informing their decisions based on that.

"At the core of this, however, the Greek people will understand the implications for voting yes or no - even with little time to campaign. The UK's 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum question was notoriously complex, but people knew the underlying choice," she added.

So while the question is long and detailed - that may be out of necessity, and the real choice will be known by Greeks."