ATHENS—“No to the Troika.” The message is stark and clear as I sit in a car outside a branch of Piraeus Bank in the working-class district of Ilion in western Athens. The words, two feet high, are graffitied on the bank’s wall. Next to them a man tries, fruitlessly it seems, to withdraw money from an ATM.
It’s an image that summed up referendum day in Greece. National anger and financial meltdown combined to give the “no” vote a clear victory. Despite ostensibly being a vote solely on the latest round of bailout proposals the implications are clearly much wider. Greece has rejected austerity; for many who voted “no,” it has rejected the EU itself.
It’s a nightmare scenario for both Greece and possibly the eurozone, but it’s been coming. Over the past two weeks, Greece and its creditors, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central bank, were unable to reach an agreement on the latest bailout package on offer. Greece has huge debts and needs bailout funds to pay them. But the creditors will only supply it if Greece continues on the path of EU-imposed austerity that has seen its economy shrink and unemployment rocket over the past six years.
Greece’s hard-left governing party, Syriza, had moved significantly—both ideologically and financially—toward trying to find some sort of compromise. Most critically, Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, finally caved in to creditors’ demands for his country to attain a 1 percent budget surplus for 2015 (to be followed by another 1 percent in 2016 and 2017 respectively). In order to fund this, the Greek government proposed raising €7.9 billion within two years through some reduced spending but mainly through increased taxes.
Syriza is ideologically committed to safeguarding Greek pensions and public-sector wages, which means it couldn’t cut spending too much. Backtrack on this fundamental (to Greek voters) issue and it faced the possibility of losing the mandate on which it was elected: to resist the austerity imposed on the country by Greece’s creditors (albeit agreed to by previous Greek governments).
Tsipras also had to contend with the prospect of dissent within Syriza. Those on its far left consider issues like pensions “red lines” that cannot be crossed no matter what the cost. Indeed, some welcome the cost. MPs like Costas Lapavitsas, who recently told me Greece had to leave the eurozone for its own good, certainly wouldn’t welcome any sort of a deal that was likely to be reached. The more concessions Tsipras made the greater the prospect of a revolt from Syriza’s left became. And the creditors weren’t budging. So he took what he saw as the only way out: Let the people decide.
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Athens awoke early to vote this Sunday. Polls opened at 7 a.m. and by mid-morning, voting stations across the capital were flooded. I begin my day at a polling station in Ampelokipi, an upper-middle-class neighborhood near the center of Athens. Like most voting stations, the venue is a school; you have to walk across the basketball court to vote. Parents drag young children, alternating between boredom and excitement, along with them. A middle-aged man in a sports shirt helps an ancient lady down the stairs. Young couples with matching sunglasses hold hands as they wait in line. All of Greek society is on display.
Voters are allotted numbers depending on the area in which they live within the catchment area. They then match these to numbers displayed on a board and go to the appropriate room to cast their ballot. Inside one of the rooms, on the second floor, sit three officials checking IDs as well as a representative of the “no” camp. There is no “yes” representative. Off to the side of the room, people vote in two ragged booths, covered in worn blue fabric.
“I voted yes because there’s a lot of regional instability at the moment and we need to be part of something larger,” says Nick, a man in his early forties. “The future of Greece is within the EU. Financial stability is important, but political stability is vital.”
Faidon, another middle-aged man, is also voting yes. “I love Greece and the Greek people and I don’t want to see us playing poker with the EU,” he tells me. “We need to change our mentality. It’s not just the politicians. Ever since [former Greek Prime Minister] Andreas Papandreaou introduced clientalism to the country, Greek parents have expected that their children would get public-sector jobs. This is the problem now. They have to sack 200,000 people in the public sector but no government in the world could do that.”
After Faidon nearly knocks me down on his moped in the street following our interview, I make my way to Kolonaki, one of Athens’ richest areas. Its upscale cafes and bars are filled with people enjoying light meals, glasses of wine, and the midday sun.
The voting station is an old and famous Athenian school with a striking neoclassical façade, entirely in keeping with the surrounding area. Outside the gates I meet Lena, a lady in her fifties. “I’m voting yes because I want to stay in Europe. I don’t care what Tsipras says. That’s what this vote is about,” she says. “We only just got out of the Balkans; I don’t want us to return there.”
“I haven’t been able to watch TV since last Friday,” she tells me. I ask why. “Because I didn’t want to have to start taking Valium,” she replies. “I’ve been watching Wimbledon instead.”
Rita, a 35-year-old professional, is another yes voter. “With a ‘no,’ we don’t have much of future,” she says. “We have to preserve what we have. I don’t trust this government—they’re liars—they promised so many things and didn’t deliver. I hope yes wins and the government falls as a result.”
“A ‘no’ vote would be a disaster for the country,” she continues. “We could possibly lose the euro and return to the old currency and people will starve. The government will stay in power for years and the country will go back 100 years.”
The morning has taught me my first lesson of referendum day. Ambelokipe is a comparatively well-off area. Kolonaki is a playground of the rich. Greece’s most affluent are generally ‘yes’ voters. And they are, of course, a minority.
The second lesson comes very quickly. The only “no” voter I can find in Kolonaki is Constantine, who tells me that he is voting no because he wants Greeks to be able to make their own decisions. “If the EU will hear our voice, I hope we can stay in,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.” But Constantine is 23, an economics student and by far the youngest voter I have spoken to. In a country where youth unemployment is running at almost 50 percent, Greece’s young are feeling austerity’s death grip like no other section of society: There is also a clear generational divide between “yes” and “no” voters.
After Kolonaki I drive south toward Peristeri, a working-class neighborhood in the west of Athens. Designer shops turn to industrial warehouses while flashy bars become cheap cafes with plastic chairs. The school where the vote is taking place is covered in graffiti. Outside its entrance the Greek communist party has set up a stall urging to people to reject both “yes” and “no” options.
Inside, I speak to Irene, an artist and writer, who tells me she is voting “no” because she thinks it is a question of freedom. Greeks, she tells me, should be free to make their own decisions. “What the EU is trying to do is impose itself on Greek politics. It’s a foreign intervention in our politics. No one can tell me what to do or who will govern me.”
“If the country votes ‘yes,’ I think things will get not just worse but so bad that some people like me will need to leave the country—a couple of generations will have no future here. I’m a highly educated artist and writer, and culture has been the first thing to suffer in the crisis.”
Joanna, a gregarious 24-year-old is even more blunt. “Of course I’m voting ‘no’!” she tells me. “I cannot accept the fact that I’ve been a prisoner for five years. The Europeans have fucked us for five years!”
I ask her whether she wants to stay in the euro. “I don’t know about leaving or staying,” she replies “I just don’t want to be a slave. The Europeans think we’re lazy but it’s not true; there are no jobs. From the ages of 18-25, you’re supposed to get educated and start to build your life, but for us these are the worst years.”
Finally, I ask her if she has a job. She laughs: “Are you crazy? A job is a luxury nowadays!"
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As the polls closed at 7 p.m. local time and Greek TV began reporting results from across the country, it became clear that it was Joanna and those like her who would carry the day. Anger at the suffering caused by austerity had triumphed over fears of jeopardizing Greece’s place in the eurozone. Emotion has trumped calculation.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has always maintained that the goal remains to keep his country in the Eurozone and that he hopes for a quick deal with its creditors. He will now return to face them with a fresh democratic mandate which he hopes will enable him to resist some of their more egregious demands. But if no agreement comes an exit from the Eurozone looks more likely than ever before. If that occurs then the future, for both Greece and the E.U. looks to be as acrimonious as it is bleak.