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OPINION: The real reason Greek PM wants a referendum

As the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras closes banks and imposes capital controls, Greece is closer than ever to the euro exit door. Tsipras' decision to call for a referendum effectively ended negotiations with euro zone and international creditors, at least for now.

In addition, a last-minute request for a one-month extension of Greece's bailout programme was unanimously rejected by eurozone members. Should Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, declare Greece officially in default after 30 June, Athens will join the ranks of delinquent states, on par with Zimbabwe, Cuba and Somalia.

Greece will effectively be reduced to economic pariah status in global markets, coupled with rogue-state status on the international diplomatic stage.

According to Tsipras' Syriza party, the referendum's purpose is an exercise in democracy. Eurozone leaders and international creditors, Syriza claims, are conspiring to bring down Greece's democratically elected government. So a referendum is needed to restore democratic decision-making to the Greek people. It will allow them - and not Brussels - to determine Greece's future.

This compelling narrative fuels Syriza's support base and the 36 percent of eligible Greek voters who voted the party into power. Tsipras will likely frame the referendum as a vote for national dignity versus austerity. It essentially amounts, however, to deciding whether Greece remains in Europe.

The underlying reason for the referendum is that Tsipras' five-month game of high-risk brinksmanship with creditors has backfired. At a time for responsible leadership and hard choices are called for, Tsipras has abdicated responsibility by calling a referendum, in effect outsourcing it to the Greek people in extreme circumstances.

Tsipras is clearly placing Syriza's short-term interests - political survival and party unity - above Greece's long-term national interests. Signing a deal with Europe risked Syriza's fragmentation and the collapse of the Tsipras government. Syriza's hardline left faction clearly threatened to oppose any deal imposing more austerity measures.

If the Tsipras government had been guided by national interest, it would have embarked on serious negotiations with creditors immediately after assuming power in late January. If necessity required, a referendum would have been appropriate by May 2015 - right before June's relevant creditor-payment deadlines.

The Greek political opposition maintains that Syriza was always planning Greece's eurozone exit. Whether by intent or ineptitude, Grexit is on track.

Tsipras' reckless disregard for the economic security of Greece and Europe has taken both into an extreme danger zone. As the government pursues this snap referendum, the risk of a meltdown remains real. It will likely determine Greece's future in Europe, and shape the European project itself.

In fact, Greece could even technically default and exit the euro before the 5 July referendum.

Considerable ambiguity still surrounds the plebiscite. The first question is whether the Tsipras government has the finances and logistical means to conduct a referendum within a week.

Second, Tsipras' referendum looks more like a surreal exercise in democracy than the real thing. After all, Greece failed to sign any binding agreement with its creditors. This begs the question: What are Greeks voting for? The creditors' final offer that was never accepted? A broad statement of principle for or against austerity?

Third, if the referendum takes place and the Greek economy is still standing, then what? A Tsipras anti-austerity victory would amount to the final nail in Greece's euro-coffin. A pro-Europe bloc victory would amount to a popular vote of no confidence in the Tsipras government. Logically, it should trigger new elections and the formation of a temporary government to administer important affairs of state during the interim period.

Tsipras may interpret it otherwise, however, and refuse to leave power. His possible argument: The people have spoken and it is his responsibility as prime minister to return to Brussels and negotiate a final deal with European leaders.

In other words, the referendum is technically based on the merits of austerity and not a parliamentary vote of confidence in his government. Yet this means that the referendum could potentially be followed by a constitutional crisis.

A referendum could also offer Tsipras the chance to leave government in a face-saving manner. Even in defeat, he would be hailed by supporters as the defender of democracy and protector of common citizens. Devotees would glorify him as the patriot who fought the good fight for national dignity, pride and sovereignty. Furthermore, he would remain the leader of his party, which would emerge intact.

Without a referendum, Syriza risked implosion. Accordingly, in Tsipras' long-term strategic vision, a referendum defeat would be a tactical setback. As the new opposition leader, he would overhaul his party over time, gradually phase out old-line Marxists who have proved a liability, and rebrand himself and Syriza as mainstream centre-left.

Should he be defeated on 5 July, Tsipras will live to fight another day. In the meantime, Greece struggles for its survival and risks descending into the abyss. Potentially dragging the other nations of Europe with it.

Marco Vicenzino is director of Global Strategy Project, a geopolitical risk and international business advisory firm.

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