What a way to start off November.
The changing of the guard in Syntagma Square, Athens - March 2000, before there was such a physical thing as a euro and before everything went pear-shaped.
Referenda aren't all that uncommon, granted, but for a situation such as this - they're extraordinary. Generally, in my experience, referenda surround relatively simple questions; the Quebec independence referendum, for a sufficiently broad definition of "simple" when you consider how the question was worded, or British Columbia's keep-the-HST referendum, which went down in flames because people thought it would be a fun time to punish the government without regard to the consequences. It's that, in particular, that concerns me about the idea of the referendum. Public opinion is prone to emotionalism, and all too often public opinion doesn't care about consequences.
This referendum plan the single most monumental example of governmental ass-covering I can think of. From the Prime Minister's perspective, it must be gravy; if the people vote in favor of the austerity - just like how British Columbians voted in a landslide to keep the HST, har har - then the government can abdicate all responsibility for creating this situation to begin with and just dump it in the people's collective lap. If it doesn't, well... to be honest, I'm not entirely certain what would happen then. I don't imagine Athens would ignore the will of the people after going out of its way to ask them, but despite the loathsome nature of the austerity demands themselves - such as the whole "sell your continually profitable assets to pay your creditors now and, incidentally, enrich some banks and corporations" thing - I've never seen any alternatives to this austerity offered in the media.
If it was just Greece, it wouldn't be an earthshaking problem. But it isn't just Greece; this is the reason why globalization was not all that good of an idea. What Greece does will echo across Earth, and do you really think that the rest of the world is just going to stand by while the Greek government aims its torpedoes at recovery because it doesn't want to own up to how much it and its predecessors fucked up? Governments have been forcibly toppled for less.
Of course, there's no assurances things will go even that far. PM Papandreou's government is holding on to power with a razor-thin majority, one that has been steadily weakened by a constant stream of defections. I'm writing this on Wednesday, so by the time it goes live on Thursday morning the situation may well have changed dramatically. That's how these things happen.
There are times when the threat of democracy can make things move... and there are times when the duty of a government is to take responsibility for its own actions. On the latter, Greece is failing rather stupendously.