Demonstrators shout slogans against austerity during a protest in support of Greece on Saturday in front of the European Union office in Nicosia, Cyprus. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

What’s at stake in this Sunday’s Greek referendum? A lot it would seem. As the results come in, the crucial fact to keep in mind is that this is really a referendum on at least three — if not more — different topics simultaneously.  This makes the challenge of figuring out how to vote that much more complicated, but also is important for how to make sense of the results once they are on the table.

On the surface, this is referendum about economic and fiscal policy.  Technically the question reads:

Should the plan of agreement, which was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of 25.06.2015 and is comprised of two parts that constitute their unified proposal be accepted?

The first document is entitled “Reforms For The Completion Of The Current Program And Beyond” and the second “Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis”.

These agreements essentially amount to whether Greece should agree to a series of economic reforms in order to receive a bailout (i.e., more loans) to help it pay its debts. As these reforms will involve the Greek government collecting more in taxes and cutting government spending, these reforms are commonly called a form of economic austerity. So at the most basic level, this is a question about economic policy, i.e., should the Greek government adopt a particular set of economic policies. But even this is complicated, because the deal to which the referendum refers is no longer even on the table!  So the referendum when it actually takes place will be a vote on accepting a deal that probably doesn’t exist.  (And if you think this sounds a little bit like being in middle school and when two people both claimed to have dumped each other first, you may not be far off).

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the referendum is also about politicsand, more specifically, Greek domestic politics. The current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras swept to power as the head of the left-wing Syriza party on a wave of anguish over austerity policies with – at least from his perspective – a mandate to reverse the policies of austerity. However, many Greeks also support continuing to use the Euro, which has limited his maneuverability somewhat. Thus one way to read the election is as a mandate on Tsipras and his government. If the “Yes” vote wins, the Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has already promised to resign, and it is possible Tsipras could resign as well. In fact, the New York Times is already reporting that opposition forces are preparing to form a new unity government should the Yes side win.  (Greece is a parliamentary democracy, so it can form a new government without a new election.) So from the perspective of Greek domestic politics, the referendum can be see as a nationwide vote of confidence in the government.

But dig deeper still, and you’ll find that this is also a referendum about international relations. Can the international community impose its will on Greece by forcing it to accept terms related to the bailout?  Would a “no” vote simply strengthen Greece’s negotiating position? Or would a “no” vote hurt Greece in its international negotiations? Looking down the road a bit, what effect might the outcome have, for example, on “Brexit“, when Britain gets to vote in its own referendum on whether or not to stay in the E.U.?  Alternatively, if the Greeks vote no and this leads to “Grexit”, what does it mean for the future of euro, or even the future of the E.U.?

Some go even farther. In a column Friday, Paul Krugman suggested that the very nature of economic orthodoxy in responding to debt crises may be on the line in this vote.  A Yes vote will mean more of the same for the future — economic bailouts must mean the introduction of austerity — while a No vote may signal a whole new approach to how debt crises can be managed.

Taken together, this is an awful lot for Greek citizens to be contemplating as they head to polling stations, which raises an important question about the appropriateness of a referendum for such a monumental task. Putting aside the question of whether referenda undermine representative democratic forms of government generally, a referendum is best suited for a question where there is a clear yes/no answer, for example, should country X join the E.U.?  To the extent that Sunday’s vote is about three to four different questions, it is worth asking what we will really learn from the results (and is a warning against the immediate flood of claims that will inevitably follow the election of “mandates”!)  How should someone vote who doesn’t like the economic package being offered in the deal, is disappointed with the Tsipras government and would prefer a unity government to replace it, wants Greece to stay in the euro and Britain to stay in the E.U., but thinks the current approach to managing Greece’s debt crisis has inflicted enough pain? And would that person end up voting different from someone who likes the Tsipras government but thinks the current deal is the best Greece is going to get, and would prefer Greece to leave the euro but feels that neither Tsipras nor a replacement government would actually take Greece out of the euro?  These are tough questions for voters, but will make interpreting the results for observers tough as well.


Read more about Greece and the euro at the Monkey Cage:

Manuela Moschella: Rescuing Greece means rescuing Europe too

David Steinberg: Will Greek voters say goodbye to the Euro on Sunday?

Mark Hallerberg: Why an agreement on Greece is so difficult.

Kathleen McNamara: The Euro is an experiment in making a currency without a government. That’s why it’s in trouble

Henry Farrell: Who’s lying in the negotiations over Greece and the euro?