ATHENS — The streets of Athens were nearly deserted Sunday as Greeks went to the polls for a historic referendum that could dramatically alter their country’s future and, some say, its place in the eurozone. But beneath the quiet calm of the city, people were grappling with fear and uncertainty as the world awaited the results of a race deemed too close to call.
Opinion polls on the eve of the vote showed a nearly even split between “Yes” and “No” voters, with around 10 percent still undecided. Not only was there little consensus among Greeks on how to vote; there was even less about what they were actually voting on: A European bailout proposal, which the left-wing government insists the vote covers, even though that offer is no longer technically on the table — or, as Greek opposition parties here and European leaders have said, a decision on Greece’s fate in the context of Europe.
Just days ago Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras suddenly called the referendum, with a “Yes” vote to accept European creditors’ stark austerity demands or a “No” vote to reject them. Tsipras has said a “No” vote would strengthen his five-month-old government’s hand in negotiations with the creditors, while a “Yes” would mean caving to their economically painful demands.
“I’m very confused,” said Angela, 55, a mother of two who works at a clothing store in the city’s Plaka district. Like many other voters who commented on the issue, she declined to give a last name. “At first I thought ‘Yes,’ but now I’m thinking ‘No,’” she said. “Yes or no, I think it’s the same … I don’t think they are telling us the whole truth.”
Others were less conflicted. “It’s a very fundamental decision we take today: If we want to stay in Europe or not,” Vasilius, a 47-year-old self-described public servant said after casting a “Yes” ballot at a school near the Acropolis. “Greece is still Europe,” he said.
Across town in the liberal enclave of Exarchia, George Stefenis, a 35-year old public sector worker, disagreed. “It’s not about euro or drachma,” he said, referring to the European and Greek currencies. “It’s about more [austerity] measures or less measures.” Stefenis, who was unable to travel back to his home province to vote, said he opposes the referendum itself. “European leaders are saying that if you vote ‘No’ the banks won’t open,” he said. “The biggest weapon right now is fear.”
Among “No” voters, the need for change was a common refrain.
“After five years, things just seem worse and worse,” said George Moskoletes, 44, a cafe worker with two children. “The recipe is wrong, so we try to find another recipe.” He said he wished to remain in the eurozone, but had voted “No” to try to “change the thinking of the European Union.”
“After all these years it has become a banking union and not a people’s union,” he said.
Others were simply eager to have their voices heard. “I know everything is going to be very difficult,” said Nikolas Tsaftarides, 59, after voting “No.” “But it’s the first time that we can say, by ourselves, something.”
Many of those voting “Yes” cited a need for stability and continuity.
“I voted to stay in Europe,” a middle-aged woman said outside a polling station in Exarchia. She would not give her name or her exact age, and would only describe herself as a liberal professional. “I don’t see any other mechanism other than the EU which, for the last sixty years of Europe, has had the result of stability.”
While the world waits, after an already dramatic week, for the next act — especially the matter of whether Sunday’s referendum sets into motion an unprecedented and legally hazy path toward a “Grexit,” or Greek break from the eurozone — many in Athens were focused on more immediate concerns, including the country’s ongoing capital controls and bank closures.
“You cannot live with the banks closed. It’s not possible,” said another voter, 58-year old Greta, who is unemployed.
There are other fears. “What worries me the most is this: I see the minister of defense saying that the army is going to be responsible for internal security,” said the unnamed liberal professional. “I’m old enough to have memories … this is no good,” she said. “We are losing democracy and we are losing stability.”
She drew parallels to another historical context. “The Europeans, especially the Germans, they should have known better,” she said. “This is 1936, ‘37, ‘38 Germany. They should have known that if you push people to whom previously you gave lots of money, this is the result.” She added: “It’s more than numbers. People are poor and people are tired.”
Others, like 57-year-old blacksmith Spiros Lardis, looked back further in history to find optimism. “We are standing under the Akropli, don’t forget that,” he said, using the Greek name for the ancient site. “I don’t know how, but we will find a solution … We never give up.”