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Greece - European Union

Greeks ponder tough choice in historic referendum

Posters for both camps defaced by opponents in Athens
Posters for both camps defaced by opponents in Athens Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Greeks vote on Sunday in a referendum, called by the left-wing Syriza government, on whether they support the EU’s proposed austerity measures – or whether they want to remain in the eurozone or even in the European Union, according to analysts. There were noisy demonstrations supporting “Ochi” (No) or “Nai” (Yes) on Friday. But the outcome was far from clear.


On Syntagma Square in central Athens the Communist Party is preparing a demonstration.

Activists representing different opinions hand out leaflets urging people to vote against or in favour of EU bailout conditions. Many of them support Ochi but not all for the same reasons.

“We support a different No from what the government asks the people to support,” says Christostomos Harletos of the right-wing Elam party. “What we say is No to new measures against the people, No to any kind of agreement.

“Because we know for sure that any kind of agreement will not be to our benefit and our position is to return the country to its old economy, its own currency, nationalise the banks, so we can control the whole economy.”

He thinks a majority of the people doesn’t even understand the questions in the referendum.

“They will vote, each and everyone for what he thinks the No represents,” he explains. “And I think that this is bad because if we don’t understand what’s really happening, we will not be able to solve the problem. Short or long-term.”

But Nai supporters are swarming over the square as well.

“The referendum tends to divide Greek society,” says Panderis Pandopoulos, who wears the blue colours of opposition New Democracy party. “We don’t know what the consequences of a No vote will be.

“A No vote could mean the exit of the euro and the EU and more uncertainty. We just had five hard years of austerity but it is better than the complete destruction of the social fabric of this country.”

Elsewhere in Athens, in a backstreet with grafitti-painted walls not far from Omonia Square, is the Alexander the Great restaurant. Its terrace is full. But not full enough to keep the business running.

“We have only 10 tables, down from 30, because the overheads were too high,” says Sodia Blacho, a lawyer who helps her father run the eatery in her spare time.

“We are a family business. All our family members help around without being paid. We used to have 10 staff members but now we have only three left. We have to borrow individually some money to invest in the business and to keep it going.”

But the family refuses to give up.

“We cannot just surrender and commit suicide,” she says. “Over the past five years many Greek people have done just that because they couldn’t find a solution for their financial difficulties. We have to fight for our children and for a better future. That’s why we have to say No.”

Uncertainty over the result of a No victory does not deter her.

“We are not afraid. It may mean going back to the drachma. If we say Yes, we will be slaves for a minimum of 30 more years. I’m looking forward to the unknown. There’s something to discover and work and struggle for.”

Others argue that a No vote will plunge Greece into an even deeper recession.

“Any type of austerity measures you can think of will be necessary in the next two years for Greece to stand again on its own feet and hopefully this will happen within the eurozone,” says Dimitri Sotiropoulos, a senior research fellow with the Eliamep think tank. “If it is going to be No, the prospects of Greece remaining in the eurozone are very bleak.”

“The creditors of Greece have no reason whatsoever any more to sit down again at the negotiating table with Greece and if they do sit down, why would they accept a list of reforms which would be more lenient and less beneficial for them compared to the list of the reforms presented by Prime Minister Tsipras himself just 10 days ago?”

The Greeks have to choose between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis. “It is a choice between a very bad and a worse scenario,” Sotiropoulos says.

“People are tired of austerity. Yet it is better to be on an austerity programme within a stable currency, zone that is continue being member of the eurozone rather than having to implement very harsh austerity reforms in a weak economy which would have its own continuously undervalued currency which will be the case of the drachma.”

Launching a referendum was fruitless, Sotiropoulos says.

“If they win, the government’s position in Greek society will be strengthened, it will have won a symbolic and Pyrrhic victory. The creditors will still want to have their money back and it is doubtful whether the No vote will make Greece’s lenders change their mind.”

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