Papandreou Nixes Referendum On Bailout

The Greek government is teetering on the brink of collapse Thursday, following the decision of Prime Minister George Papandreou to call off a referendum on the Europe bailout package for his country. The finance minister and other party colleagues have turned against Papandreou, amid talk of a national coalition government to prepare for new elections. Guy Raz talks to Joanna Kakissis, who has the latest from Athens.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. So much for asking the public. The Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has scrapped plans for a referendum that would've asked Greeks to vote for or against the latest European bailout. The idea of that referendum sent the eurozone world markets and the Greeks themselves into a tailspin, and so the prime minister has now backed off. But the possibility of that referendum also forced a discussion that Papandreou had long called for. Are Greeks ready to make sacrifices to avoid bankruptcy and stay in the European Union?

Reporter Joanna Kakissis joins us now from Athens. And Joanna, a lot of drama today in Athens. At one point, there was even talk that the prime minister would resign. How did the day develop?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Well, it all started last night with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy berating Papandreou for making this decision. What they were concerned about is what's going to happen to the eurozone. And then Greeks started to see this happening and they started asking themselves, are we going to get kicked out of the eurozone? And the politicians themselves were the most scared, probably, of that question because here you have the opposition parties who've been saying this all along that Papandreou is a very dangerous man, he's a very, you know, he's a very impulsive man. And now, members of his own party were saying what are you doing? I mean, what kind of situation are you putting us into?

So, what happened today is there was an emergency cabinet meeting, and Papandreou, the first thing he wanted to do was, no, I want to show you guys that I'm able to handle this. But there was a lot of pushback. There was talk about a coalition government and there was talk about the prime minister himself resigning.

RAZ: Joanna, I'm wondering – and I wonder if Greeks are wondering – whether this whole idea to call for a referendum was a kind of a ploy by Papandreou to force the opposition's hand.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that was definitely part of the plan all along. Because, let's keep in mind that the main opposition here, the main opposition New Democracy party has fought the PASOK party, which is the socialist ruling party, on every step of the bailout agreement. And what happened today was when there was talk about a coalition government, the opposition leader, Antonis Samaras, came out and said, look, I will support the bailout, and I will vote for it and I will do whatever it takes to make it happen. This is the first time he's come out in favor and saying he's going to vote it and his deputies are going to vote for it. So, yes, he did force their hand and it was somewhat of an accomplishment for a country as divided politically as Greece is.

RAZ: But are there suggestions that Papandreou never really intended to take this to the public?

KAKISSIS: There has been some talk that that's the case, but actually, no, because Papandreou is - he's an idealist. I mean, he's somebody, he's a sociologist, he's very mild-mannered, he's a very deliberate person. But he's also got very strong faith in this idea that the Greeks really love and understand democracy. And he really wanted Greeks to have a voice. He really wanted them to feel like they were in control of their fate, that it wasn't just a bunch of politicians in parliament making these decisions for them.

So, no, I mean, there's been some cynical talk about that but I think, based on his character and the things that he's done in the past, that no, I think he really genuinely wanted to have a referendum.

RAZ: He still faces a vote of confidence in parliament tomorrow. Will his socialists, will his government survive that vote?

KAKISSIS: It's unclear right now, but by all accounts, it looks like he might survive it. The biggest development tonight was that he came back to parliament and gave a talk and said, look, everything's on the table. I'm open to having a coalition government, I'm open to elections, I'm even open to leaving my job. The most important thing is we've got to do something that's going to be good for the country so that it can survive the debt crisis.

RAZ: That's reporter Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: Thank you.

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