22nd Mar 2023


Athens on edge as referendum looms

  • A leaflet calling for No vote on Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament in Athens (Photo: EUobserver)

Athens is bustling with the seasonal tourists and busy traffic typical of early July, but a feeling of apprehension pervades the city.

"We are afraid," says a waiter in a restaurant on Syntagma square, at the foot of the Greek parliament, the heart of modern Greek democracy.

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  • A man calling for a Yes to Europe and No to the division of the Greek people, on Syntagma square (Photo: EUobserver)

"But we have to wait and see what happens Monday morning".

On Sunday (5 July), Greeks will vote in a referendum on reforms proposed by Greece's creditors in return for a new tranche of finance.

But everyone knows that the bailout programme ended on Tuesday night (30 June) and that the vote is on the broader issue of whether people are for or against the government of Alexis Tsipras, for or against the EU.

The referendum outcome could cause an internal political crisis or a wider EU crisis, possibly leading to Greece’s exit from the eurozone.

According to the latest poll on Wednesday, the Nai (Yes) vote was ahead of the Oxi (No), with 47 percent against 43 percent. But a previous poll put the No before the Yes, with 54 percent against 33 percent.

In a country battered by a five-year long crisis, where the government is campaigning for a No, the word Oxi is everywhere in the Greek capital.

It’s on handwritten banners hung on walls and fences by supporters of Syriza, Tsipras' party. It’s on posters hung on lampposts by the KKE, the Greek communist party. It’s also on posters stuck in phone booths and on small electric transformers by far-left groups Antarsya and United People's Front (Apem).

"We are for an exit from Europe and a return to the drachma [the former currency],” says Antonis, an Apem activist.

Together with a group of other Apem members, Antonis is distributing leaflets to Syntagma passers-by under a small tent with large Oxi banners.

"The government needs a big No to explain to the EU that people can't stand any new austerity measures”, he says.

But where would the money come from if Greece were to return to the drachma?

"From our national mint”, Antonis says.

"Now [European Central Bank president Mario] Draghi can close our banks. We would protect them”, adds Helen, also from Apem.

"Our taxes are enough for the Greek people to live, but not to pay for the debt they created”, she adds.

Costas and Helen, who are in their 40s and 50s, say they lost their jobs because of the crisis.

As they speak, a group of some 50 young people bursts from the pedestrianised Ermou street waving red flags and chanting slogans.

They are from Antarsya - the Anticapitalist Left Co-operation for the Overthrow. Without stopping, they cross Syntagma square, throwing leaflets, then march into the middle of traffic in the avenue in front of the parliament.

"It is like this every day”, the waiter at the restaurant says.

He will vote No in the referendum.

"We have too many taxes, too many cuts, it is very difficult”, he notes.

"I don't know what will happen after, but what they have done so far is not working. This our last chance to have a change”.

ATM queues

Across the street, people are queuing for the Post Office cash machine.

Next to it, there’s a closed bank, as are all banks since the government decided, on Sunday, to impose capital controls and a bank holiday.

The queue is not that long, only seven or eight people, but queues can be seen at all ATM machines. If it is a bank run, it’s a slow motion bank run.

Under the capital control measures, Greeks can withdraw a maximum of €60 a day. But in reality, many ATMs have only €50 notes, making the actual withdrawal ceiling lower in practice.

On Wednesday, shortly after midnight, half a dozen people were queuing at an ATM machine in an Athens suburb along the road leading to the airport.

A car stopped. The driver asked if there was money to be withdrawn. When told the ATM was still supplied, he parked and joined the queue.

"We come to take our allowed daily amount of money,” a woman in her 30s said. "Just to be sure we still have cash, because we don't know how long we'll be able to take money.”

At the same time, the political campaign is in full swing on TV.

Talk shows run till the middle of the night and early in the morning. Debates are heated, with panelists frequently talking over each other.

Tsipras' latest speech is being minutely analysed.

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who said on Bloomberg TV that he would resign if the Yes won, is being chased by microphones and cameras even when puts on his helmet and jumps on his motorbike.

Yes or No?

With a Nai orange badge - the same colour as Apem’s Oxi banners - the leader of the To Potami party, Stavros Theodorakis, is trying to take charge of the Yes campaign.

The Yes camp, which is less visible than the No camp, is supported by the centrist party, which was founded in 2014, as well as by the conservative New Democracy and the socialist Pasok.

The three parties won 35 percent of the votes in January's election and hold 109 of the 300 seats in parliament.

As in many European countries, political parties which support EU economic policies are less vocal and less visible on the streets than protest parties.

But earlier this week, a pro-Yes demonstration on Syntagma square outnumbered a pro-No demonstration the day before.

Another Yes-side demo is to take place on Friday evening in the ancient Panathenaic stadium.

Until referendum day the two sides will try to rally voters. What will happen when one side is defeated is difficult to know.


Outside the Syntagma metro station, a lone man in a hat is holding a sign.

"Ladies and gentlemen: No to division; Yes to Europe; Yes to solidarity; that the strong nations of the world help Greece”, it says.

Costas, unemployed and in his 50s, decided to come here because he’s afraid of what might happen. He will vote on Sunday, but all he’s prepared to say is that he’ll vote for Europe.

"We, Greeks, are not divided yet. But who knows what will happen in five, six or 10 days”, he says.

Greeks can withdraw €60 a day

Greek banks did not open on Monday, kicking off a week full of uncertainties for both Greece and the eurozone.


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