Threat of vote rocks eurozone: Greece could be left to go bankrupt

A woman walks outside the Greek parliament in central Athens, on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011. Lawmakers in Greece's ruling Socialist party revolted Tuesday over their prime minister's surprise decision to hold a referendum on a European debt deal, threatening the very survival of his embattled government.

FRANKFURT, Germany -- It took only a few words from Greece's prime minister to upend Europe's efforts to convince the world that its grand plan to save the euro would mark a turning point in the continent's debt crisis and keep it from hurting the global economy.

The chaos generated by George Papandreou's mere proposal to put Greece's participation in the deal to a referendum exposed the fragility of the European plan and the lack of confidence it enjoys in markets.

A top European official warned that Athens could be left to go bankrupt if it went through with the vote, and experts said the broader eurozone deal, which hopes to protect larger countries like Italy, could collapse.

Ultimately, Greece could leave the euro union, causing massive financial havoc and pushing the global economy back into recession.

That prospect could be enough to keep the referendum from happening; Papandreou's government could collapse before the proposal goes through, having lost huge amounts of support from its own party. The cabinet met in emergency session Wednesday night.

The referendum proposal piled more pressure on an already creaking deal that was facing scrutiny from markets that found details wanting.

European leaders agreed last Thursday on $136 billion in new bailout loans for Greece to accompany a 50 percent debt write-off on the debt owed to its private creditors. The broader plan will also push European banks to strengthen their finances against losses on Greek bonds and strengthen the bailout fund to backstop other governments.

Yet key details were lacking. Would enough banks join the "voluntary" write-down? How would a scheme to magnify the bailout fund's financial power work? Would banks refuse to raise new capital and instead buttress their finances by simply lending less money, hurting the economy? Would the 50 percent reduction still leave Greece with too much debt?

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Now the referendum proposal adds even more uncertainty. Yields on Italian bonds have jumped above 6 percent despite an effort by the European Central Bank to drive them down by buying them in the secondary market.

The referendum proposal also calls into question Greece's commitment to the bailout plan. Parliament was due to vote on it, but hanging its fate on a popular vote in Greece, where protests have intensified over the past year, is perhaps too bold a political move.

Papandreou will have hoped to get a solid mandate to implement austerity measures over coming years, but the uncertainty created by the proposal itself, and the fact that the vote would be months away, risks sinking the European deal before Greeks can even vote on it.

Athens will run out of money to pay pensions and salaries by mid-November, and has to pay bondholders money in December. Failure to do so could trigger a default with dire consequences for stock and bond markets.