Few walked the rain-slick streets of Athens in the early hours of Saturday when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced his shock decision to let Greeks determine their own financial fate – and perhaps Europe’s, as well.
Among the first to react were the cab drivers. They shouted the news from their taxi windows to fellow cabbies and passersby. There would be a referendum. On July 5, Greece would choose whether to accept the latest demands from their creditors – more pension cuts and tax hikes – or face a possible exit from the euro and the economic unknown.
Some headed straight for the ATM to withdraw precious euros, even as Deputy Foreign Minister Euclid Tsakalotos assured them that the banks would open on Monday. Others cheered the chance for Greece to regain control of its finances after more than five years of economic decline and fiscal cliffhangers directed by foreign bankers and politicians.
“They’re trying to kill us, they’re trying to kill us, they’re trying to kill us,” said Ianos Kalivas, eating at a kebab shop near Parliament Square. “It’s like we live in a constant state of fear.”
How Greeks will vote is unclear. More than 56 percent favored retaining the euro, compared with 35.4 percent who preferred default and an exit over a bad debt deal, according to a Mega TV poll released June 16.
That was before Greek leaders denounced euro area negotiators as blackmailers out to humiliate their country and urged people to vote “no” in the referendum. While a negative result could prompt the European Central Bank to cut its financial lifeline to the country’s banks and raise the risk of a Greek default, a “yes” vote could force Tsipras into early elections.
The political atmosphere may only grow more tense over the next eight days, especially if ATM queues become bank runs.
Greeks will be voting under “extremely difficult conditions of national division and extreme economic conditions,” said Nicholas Economides, an economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Tsipras is gambling with the future of Greece.”
The future was far from the mind of Lapidos Kontos, a student on his way home from a friend’s birthday party. Dignity was worth more than the euro, he said, supporting a combative approach by Tsipras.
“They treat us like beggars and thieves,” Kontos said. “He should have just said ‘no’ and come back to Athens.”
Greeks have rarely decided something so big since voting in 1974 to become a republic. Nikolas Karagianakis, a pensioner who paused while kick-starting a scooter early Saturday morning to watch a live video feed on his phone, said he hoped his countrymen would consider the consequences of the referendum.
“It’s a horrible idea,” Karagianakis said. “Staying in the euro is going to be tough, but going back to the drachma will be worse. And I am worried that most people won’t know enough about the situation to vote carefully.”