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Greeks Divided as Polls Close in Hotly Contested Referendum

Millions of Greeks cast ballots in a referendum that may determine the country’s economic survival and its future in Europe.

by Andrew Connelly
Jul 5 2015, 3:55pm

Photo by Andrew Connelly

In the birthplace of democracy, the word "crisis" is on everybody's lips. Appropriately, the word's etymology is ancient Greek, roughly meaning "decision," or "judgment." On Sunday, millions of Greeks cast their votes in a referendum that will likely determine the country's economic survival and its future in Europe.

The question on the ballot asked if Greece should approve a draft agreement submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the euro group on June 25.

For practically all citizens of Greece, the specific terms of the deal are essentially meaningless. Instead, most voters are focused on their own issues, ranging from a rejection of austerity to a sense of belonging in Europe. The government, led by radical leftist party Syriza, has staked its political future on the country voting "Oxi" (No), which they argue will give them legitimacy to negotiate a less punishing debt restructuring with their European creditors, to whom they owe an estimated 242 billion euros. For the European institutions advocating a "Nai" (Yes), a no vote risks Greece exiting the euro currency, causing turbulence in the financial markets and threatening the very existence of the European Union.

According to official returns released by Greece's Interior Ministry on Sunday afternoon, with more than half of the ballots counted, the "no" vote received 61 percent support and was on pace to carry every region across the country, making the final outcome almost certain.

Related: Greek Riot Police Use Stun Grenades on Protesters Ahead of Pivotal Bailout Vote

Greek voters head to the polls. (Photo by Panagiotis Maidis/VICE News)

In a classroom of primary school number 27 in the densely populated, working class district of Kypseli, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who lives nearby, cast his vote. "No one can ignore the message of determination of a people taking is destiny into its own hands," he told reporters.

Outside, naval architect and proud "No" voter Vasilis Papantoniou gestured to his seven month-old daughter staring up at him from her stroller and told VICE News that he is voting against austerity.

"I am voting for a better future for her," he said. "I don't want to have it on my conscience that I could have had a chance to make a change for her and didn't. I don't know if this referendum means that the government is paying attention to what people want or that they are trying to get the easy way of a difficult decision, but we need to let democracy have its day. I just thought today I had to come no matter what."

In the last week, Athens has been a city awash with panic, rumor, and heightened rhetoric.

On Monday, the government introduced credit controls that saw all banks closed and Greeks lining up outside ATMs as a maximum withdrawal limit of 60 euros — later reduced to 50 euros — was imposed. It has become common parlance among young Greeks to meet each other for a drink "after midnight," when they can once again access their money.

On Friday, dual rallies by the Yes and No camps in the center of the city saw streets bursting with crowds of tens of thousands.

Related: 'This Is Dignity?': Confusion and Anger Reign on the Streets of Athens

Greeks pushing for a "Nai" (Yes) vote on the referendum converse at a protest. (Photo by Andrew Connelly/VICE News)  

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, thundered doom-laden predictions on Saturday, warning that "salaries will not be paid, the health system will stop functioning, the power network and public transport will break down and they won't be able to import vital goods because nobody can pay."

The firebrand Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis shot back, accusing the European creditors of "spreading fear" and wanting to "humiliate Greeks." "What they are doing with Greece has a name — terrorism," Varoufakis said.

On the other side of the city, by the gates of primary school number 15 in the leafy, affluent area of Kolonaki in central Athens, pensioner Korres Kathri made the case for a Yes vote. "Unity is the answer, both with the European Union and for the Greek people," Kathri told VICE News. "We will get austerity whether it is a yes or a no, but at least if we are in Europe we will have some kind of help, but the only people that can solve this is the Greeks."

Tonya Kounalaki, a technician, wore a green "Nai" (Yes) sticker on her shirt.

"This referendum is ridiculous," she told VICE News. "What are we voting for? It's a clear decision between yes to Europe or going back to closed borders. We are facing big problems; my husband doesn't have work at the moment, we are down to one salary, we have one daughter in private school and a son ready to study abroad. The biggest danger is the division this is causing, some families are not talking to each other because someone is yes and someone is no. This is far more serious than the lack of money or medicine."

Related: Greeks Do Not Accept Shackles': Country Gears Up for a Major Referendum

Greek voters lining up to cast their ballots. (Photo by Panagiotis Maidis/VICE News)

Outside the school, Dimitris, the owner of a nearby café, frowned at the situation the created by the political crisis. He referenced the last Greek referendum in 1974, when the country overwhelmingly voting in favor of abolishing the monarchy.

"In the times of Athenian democracy, we had referenda every day, and now we have the first one in 40 years and everybody goes crazy," he said, becoming visibly agitated. "Pericles once said that the Athenians 'philosophize without softness,' and today is a decision about whether we want democracy in Europe or not. Right now, we are looking into the abyss, at the possible death of democracy by capitalism. Before, we were living. Now, we are surviving."

Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew 

Watch the latest VICE News dispatch, Yes or No? Greece Again on the Brink: Greek Debt Crisis (Dispatch 1):