ATHENS: Greeks voted today in a tightly fought referendum on whether to accept worsening austerity in exchange for more bailout funds, or reject it in a gamble that could see it crash out of the euro.
Polling stations were open across the country of 11 million people — on far-flung Aegean islands, in the shadow of the 2,400-year-old Parthenon in Athens, to the northern border shared with fellow EU state Bulgaria.
The European Union and international investors were intently watching the poll, which was the biggest challenge to the European single currency since it came into being in 1999 and was adopted by Greece two years later.
The outcome was far from certain. Polls suggest the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps are neck-and-neck.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras insists a ‘No’ victory would strengthen his hand in negotiations with the country’s international creditors. But EU leaders warn it would effectively be a vote to leave the 19-nation eurozone — a so-called “Grexit”.
Tsipras’s flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, on Saturday accused Athens’s creditors of “terrorism” for trying to sow fear around the vote. He has pointed out that no legal mechanism exists to force Greece out of what is meant to be an “irreversible” monetary union.
As the sun rose in a clear summer sky today, young and old were already queueing to have their say in schools and university buildings transformed into polling stations. Voting was to close at 7:00pm (1600 GMT), with results expected hours later.
Dimitris Halatsis, a teacher, said it was “a crucial day” and he was voting ‘No’ because “it’s the only chance the government and Greece have to apply pressure” on the creditors.
‘Better for the Country’
Michelis, an 80-year-old first through the doors of an elementary school being used for the vote on Skoufa street in central Athens, said he too was voting ‘No’ “because they’ll take us more seriously”.
In a room hung with children’s drawings and maps he said that he was “not voting for myself, but for my grandchildren” and their future.
Theodora, 61, a retired journalist, said she was voting ‘Yes’ because “it’s a ‘Yes’ to the European Union”.
Tsipras, a radical leftist who came to power in January, has staked his political career on the plebiscite.
The 40-year old was to vote in an elementary school in central Athens, just north of the Acropolis.
His bombshell decision last week to put the issue to a referendum stunned international creditors, who accused him of ruining five-months of intense bailout negotiations.
In the largely middle-class Pangrati neighbourhood, voter turnout was high, with even the very elderly making their way determinedly up a flight of forty steps to reach polling booths set up inside a school.
Summing up the uncertainty felt by many Greeks, 56-year old Katerina had still not made up her mind which way to vote, even as she collected her ballot.
“It is very confusing, it’s very hard, not at all easy to decide,” she said, admitting that she had voted in Tsipras but was disappointed in his failure to strike a deal with the country’s creditors.
Run on Food
Greece was officially declared in default on Friday by the European Financial Stability Facility, which holds 144.6 billion euros ($160 billion) of Greek loans, days after becoming the first developed country to miss a 1.5-billion-euiro debt payment to the IMF.
Austerity-plagued Greeks were squeezed yet further this week after a government scrabbling to stay afloat imposed strict capital controls, closing banks and limiting daily ATM withdrawals to just 60 euros ($67).
The banks’ liquidity was expected to dry up entirely in days unless the European Central Bank (ECB) injected funds quickly.
Supermarket shelves have been emptied in the days leading up to the referendum.
“Most people are buying food now because they fear the worst,” said Andreas Koutras, a 51-year-old Greek woman who works in finance in the capital.
Mothers, elderly men and university students were seen pushing heavily overloaded trolleys or coming out of shops weighed down by bags of food, with essentials such as sugar, flour and pasta top of the list.
The referendum is seen as so crucial that some Greeks living outside the country made the trip back to vote as no provisions had been made to permit ballots in embassies for the hastily called poll.
But financial analysts said they doubted a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ would greatly change things. Many said they expected negotiations would resume in either case, though a ‘No’ could still conceivably hasten a “Grexit”.
Some of the world’s top economists, however, said Greece’s least-bad choice was to vote ‘No,’ accept a painful exit from the euro and claw its way back to economic stability through a devalued national currency.
“A ‘No’ vote would at least open the possibility that Greece… might grasp its destiny in its own hands” and shape a future that “though perhaps not as prosperous as the past, is far more hopeful than the unconscionable torture of the present,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and professor at Columbia University in the United States.