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Greeks vote for ‘destiny’ in poll – Referendum result could put euro future in doubt

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

ATHENS: Greece voted in a tightly fought referendum yesterday that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said will determine its “destiny” in the eurozone, as the EU country teetered on the brink of financial collapse. From remote Aegean islands to the shadow of the 2,400- year-old Parthenon in Athens, Greeks despairing at years of austerity - and angry at capital controls this week that have closed banks and prompted a clean-out of supermarket shelves - cast their ballots.

Polls show opinion evenly divided between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ with many believing neither result would provide a quick and clear solution to Greece’s debt woes. Fear that a ‘No’ result urged by the government could put Greece on the path to an exit from the eurozone - a so-called Grexit - spooked some. “When you have to choose between two bad solutions, you choose the least bad, and that’s clearly ‘Yes’,” said Dimitris Kavouklis, 42, as he voted in an upmarket district of the capital. “We’re voting ‘No’ but we’re afraid.

But when we vote ‘Yes’, we’re afraid as well. We’re afraid on both sides,” said Nadia, a 63-year-old retired English teacher on the island of Poros, near Athens, her eyes reddened from crying. As Tsipras voted in his northern Athens neighbourhood he said he was confident of a ‘No’ that, he has argued, would force concessions from the creditors to give Greeks less austerity and more “dignity”. “No one can ignore the will of the people to live, to live with determination, to take its destiny into its own hands,” he said, appearing relaxed and wearing an open-necked white shirt. Tsipras’s flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has slammed Athens’s creditors for raising the spectre of Grexit, pointing out no legal mechanism exists to force Greece out of the “irreversible” monetary union. He has vowed to resign if a ‘Yes’ prevails, and the pressure would be on Tsipras to do the same. Voting was to close at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT), with results expected a couple of hours later.

‘Impossible to Understand’
Even though many grumbled that the long and technical question they were voting on was impossible to understand, minds for the most part were made up. Michelis, an 80-yearold first through the doors of a primary school being used for the vote in central Athens, said he too was saying ‘No’ “because they (the creditors) will take us more seriously”. Theodora, 61, a retired journalist, said she was voting ‘Yes’ because “it’s a ‘Yes’ to the European Union”. In the largely middle-class Pangrati neighbourhood, voter turnout was high, with even the very elderly making their way determinedly up a flight of 40 steps to reach polling booths. Summing up the uncertainty felt by around 10 percent of Greek voters, 56-year old Katerina said as she collected her ballot paper: “It is very confusing, it’s very hard, not at all easy to decide.” She added that she had voted to elect Tsipras, but was disappointed by his failure to strike a deal with the country’s creditors.

Merkel’s Hardball
Greece was officially declared in default on Friday by the European Financial Stability Facility, which holds Ä144.6 billion ($160 billion) of Greek loans, days after becoming the first developed country to miss a debt payment to the International Monetary Fund. With its credit lifeline reduced to a trickle, the government this week closed banks and capped daily ATM withdrawals to Ä60 ($67). The banks’ liquidity was expected to dry up entirely within a day or two unless the European Central Bank (ECB) - a major creditor - injected funds quickly.

Martin Schulz, the head of the European Parliament, was scathing of Tsipras’s government in an interview with Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper, saying it had led Greece into a “dead end”. Nevertheless, he said, Europe in the short-term could give “emergency bridging loans to Greece so that public service can be maintained and needy people get the money they need to survive”. Tsipras has called for much more than that, demanding the ECB, IMF and European Commission forgive 30 percent of the Ä240 billion ($267 billion) they have loaned Greece over the past five years, and allow it a 20-year grace period before it starts repaying the rest. So far, the German government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel has been playing hardball with Greece.

Some reports suggested it wants to force a Grexit as a lesson to other lagging eurozone nations. But that was causing a split among the big eurozone economies. In an interview published Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said that, no matter the referendum’s result, “we must start talking to each other again - no one knows that more than Angela Merkel”. France’s economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, said that even if Tsipras gets his ‘No’, bailout talks must resume. And in what could be seen as a thinly-veiled jibe at Germany, he warned that Europe cannot “crush an entire people”. —AFP

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This article was published on 05/07/2015