Syriza celebrates as Greeks deliver an electoral earthquake

Even pro-Europe voters were leaning to No side: ‘It’s a stand to say: no more’

Thousands of 'No' voters stage party in Athens and celebrate the outcome of a referendum that they say slapped down the architects of a five-year austerity drive that has ravaged the economy of the debt-ladden country. Video: Reuters


Greece held its breath. So did the rest of Europe. On the stroke of 7pm on Sunday, Athens time, as polling stations across the country closed their doors, a unanimous call resounded across the television studios.

The No side had it, according to four opinion polls. But the result remained unclear, the response muted. Opinion polls are less reliable than exit polls, and they’ve got it wrong before. All was quiet on Syntagma Square.

But the gap didn’t narrow; it widened. As the count began and the results filtered through, the map of Greece slowly but surely turned orange – the colour of No. The figures were staggering. Corfu, with 20 per cent of boxes opened, had voted No by 70 per cent. In Kefalonia it was 65 per cent. In the working-class port town of Piraeus, 72 per cent.

With the first official projections estimating that the No vote would exceed 60 per cent, Syriza figures were jubilant. Politicians from New Democracy, the conservative opposition party that had called for a Yes, were crestfallen.

Crowds began to gather on Syntagma Square. A surreal, often bewildering week had delivered an electoral earthquake.

The stakes could scarcely have been higher. Greek banks have been closed for the past week, their cash fast running out and their customers restricted to daily withdrawals of €60. Pharmacies have reported shortages. All week, European leaders had warned that a No vote would result in a historic rupture and could culminate in Greece leaving the euro zone.

All day, however, polling stations offered proof that a great many voters didn’t see it quite that way – or were willing to run the risk. As she prepared to vote on Adrianou Street in central Athens, 22-year-old economics student Thenia Mikalopoulou said the decision weighed heavily on her, but she was leaning towards a No.

She was avowedly pro-European, proud of Greece’s place in the euro zone, but wondered whether now was the time to put a stop to a cycle that had left Greece on its knees.

“I want [them] to negotiate more and make a better deal,” she said. “I think it’s achievable”. Mikalopoulou counted herself among those who wanted Greece to retain the single currency but who “want something better” and saw a No vote as a way of forcing a change in direction. “We have to do something,” she said.

For Giorgos (44), a shopkeeper whose kiosk fell victim to the crisis and had to close down, a No vote was not a judgment on Greece’s place in Europe but on the austerity policies creditors were trying to force on the country.

“It’s not a matter of ending negotiations. It’s a stand to say: no more, we have had enough austerity,” he said. Giorgos, now studying agricultural engineering in the hope of building a new career, did not vote for Alexis Tsipras’s party in January’s elections, but didn’t hold him responsible for the current stand-off with Greece’s lenders.

“The institutions didn’t give him anything. They pushed him into a corner. We said, ‘we’ll take 10 measures’, they said, ‘okay, take 30 measures.’ It’s not sensible.”

He probably wouldn’t vote for prime minister Alexis Tsipras today, “but as a citizen of this country, I want Tsipras to achieve something for the Greek people.” Giorgos admitted to a certain fear about the future. Voters on both sides are afraid, he says, “but on the No side, we have the painkiller of pride.”

Not everyone was willing to run the risk of a No vote, however. Stelios Tziras, who runs a small business in the city, called the referendum “a trick” played by Syriza on the Greek population for its own political ends.

“Even the question itself,” he said, referring to the text-heavy ballot paper, which referred to a lengthy document that Tziras said neither he nor anyone else has read and which the creditors said is no longer on the table. “He who organises the referendum can ask whatever he wants. Syriza is looking for a No vote, and does whatever it can to push people towards voting No.”

Tziras voted for the centrist Potami party in January and said he worried about the country’s direction over the past six months. “It’s only the beginning,” he says about the closure of the banks. “I’m afraid for the future. Today everyone can cope – it’s not that difficult for a week. But an economy can’t last like this.”

As tourists peered in through the gates of the Adrianou Street polling station, in the shadow of the Acropolis, Christos Retoulas – a stout, cheerful 40-something who works in the public sector – said he was sure his No vote would put him in the majority. He resented the creditors’ offer of a “take it or leave it” deal, as if there was only one way of resolving Greece’s impasse.

“It’s this Augustinian dualistic worldview that doesn’t allow for synthesis of opinions,” he said. But there was also a more practical reason for his No vote: the lenders were offering nothing at all on debt relief, and a strong message from the people of Greece might force them into a rethink.

“Greece needs a deal that includes debt. Without a debt deal, you might as well throw money into a well.”