Greeks prepare landmark referendum like it’s 1974


With banks shut and coffers running dry, Greece is rushing to organize a hastily called vote the country can ill afford.

It’s not just that Sunday’s vote could threaten the country’s place in the euro. It also may put more strain on the government’s and the population’s shaky finances.

The government says the cost will be about 20 million euros for distributing ballots and paying election monitors. Opposition lawmakers say it may be as much as 120 million euros, citing a Finance Ministry study from 2011. The cost for Greeks will be yet another trip to their home region, five months after they did so to vote in the election that brought Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to power.

Even the most modest form of transport home gets harder now that cash withdrawals are capped at 60 euros a day and credit cards aren’t always accepted. The government is urging gas stations to accept credit cards and all public transport in Athens and the surrounding suburbs will be free.

Longer trips are another matter.

“I don’t want to spend the money and I don’t want to vote,” said Dimitra Bakratsa, 34, who works in the tourism industry. She said she can’t afford to spend the 60 euros on a return train ticket to Larissa, some 220 miles north of Athens, where she is registered. “To travel all that way and to spend the money, for what? It’s not going to change anything. There is no good option for Greece.”

Greek voters won’t be able to cast absentee ballots or vote by mail. And they can only vote at the polling stations where they are registered, usually the town of their birth, unless they’ve signed up as out-of-constituency ahead of time. Voter turnout is usually high in a public that’s deeply engaged with politics.

The country hasn’t held a referendum since 1974, when 69 percent voted against the return of the former king after the fall of a military dictatorship. Greece’s fragmented politics have led to three general elections since it accepted a bailout in 2010 to avoid default.

Coming just five months after the January 25 election that brought Tsipras to power, Sunday’s referendum will be held under the same monitors, easing preparations. But ballots to the country 19,000 polling stations only started being dispatched on Wednesday.

Constitutional experts and lawyers have already raised concerns about the validity and fairness of the vote, arguing that time is too short for all the ballots and monitors to reach the polling stations. The Athens Bar Association on Tuesday criticized both the lack of time to prepare the vote and insufficient information on the subject itself, a draft proposal that was never finalized and that European negotiators say is now off the table.

“There will certainly be irregularities,” said Antonis Manitakis, professor of constitutional law at the University of Thessaloniki.

Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis said Tuesday that the government would make sure the ballots reach the polling stations by Sunday. Turnout must be 40 percent to legitimize the vote, a threshold that should be easily reached given a 64 percent turnout in January’s election.

Those who do reach the voting booths will be faced with one of the most complex questions ever posed in a referendum.

The single paper ballot will ask people to tick their response, “no” or “yes” to the question of whether they approve terms attached to a now expired bailout. The format is a departure from Greek polling norms: People are usually handed different ballots for each choice and they simply discard the ones they don’t cast.

Even more confusingly, the referendum question is based on a document that has been poorly translated into Greek from a highly technical, half-finished English draft. The translation also misses a key word on a matter central to this vote: debt sustainability. While the original English document deems the debt to be sustainable under two potential scenarios, the Greek version claims it isn’t.

“I am waiting to hear more when things settle down and it’s clear what we are voting for,” said Vangelis Papadopoulos, who works at a printing and photocopying shop. “It seems to be constantly changing. It’s hard to keep up.”

The country’s electoral rolls, with about 10.5 million people, are ready, according to Voutsis. Exit polls should come out after voting ends at 7 p.m. on Sunday. Software distributor SingularLogic, which has been hired to run the vote counting and data processing, should be able to provide an estimation of the winner a few hours after that, according to Voutsis.

The results won’t include Costas Papadopoulos.

“I want to vote ‘yes’ but business is business,” said Papadopoulos, 23, who runs a small coffee shop in central Athens. He’s registered to vote in Thessaloniki, more than 300 miles north. “I have to work. I have no time to go back. I can’t close the cafe as it’s open on Sunday and I work alone.” [Bloomberg]