The Greek Crisis

Greek Voters Have Just One Question: What Does Yes Mean?

How about no? The crisis ballot on a European bailout comes down to an abstractly worded query and two documents in English

An anti-austerity protest in Syntagma Square in Athens on Monday.

An anti-austerity protest in Syntagma Square in Athens on Monday.

Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

“If we go back to the drachma, then what?” asks George Beltas, a 75-year-old retired construction worker in the Greek city of Patras.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called a surprise referendum for Sunday on how much more austerity his country is willing to endure, and Beltas is struggling to make sense of it all. 

The ballot question, formally presented on Monday afternoon, loosely translates as: “Should we accept the proposal submitted on June 26, 2015, by the Eurogroup, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund?” Whether in Greek or English, voters say, the referendum is confusing, referring to a "plan of agreement ... composed of two parts," attaching two complex documents in English and not clearly explaining anything.

“Yes or no, that’s what they tell us the choice is,” Beltas says. “But they’re not saying what will happen later. ... What will the government do after the vote?” He plans to vote yes. 

"People don't understand what they're voting for," says George, an attorney in Athens who asks that his last name not be used. "Many think it's voting for Tsipras or voting against Tsipras. Or they say: 'I want to stay in Europe, whatever this means.' Everyone, the Greek people, the government, the Europeans, interprets the question in their own way. That’s the problem."


The Greek Referendum Question

The 68-word ballot question namechecks four international institutions and asks voters for their opinion on two highly technical documents that weren’t made public before the referendum call. Here is the question translated into English:

“Greek people are hereby asked to decide whether they accept a draft agreement document submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, at the Eurogroup meeting held on on June 25 and which consists of two documents:

‘‘The first document is called Reforms for the Completion of the Current Program and Beyond and the second document is called Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.

‘‘- Those citizens who reject the institutions’ proposal vote Not Approved / NO

 ‘‘- Those citizens who accept the institutions’ proposal vote Approved / YES.’’


Tsipras isn’t rushing to clear it up. In fact, things could get more confusing. His government today asked the EU for a two-year bailout, hours after the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini cited unnamed sources saying that Tsipras was reconsidering a last-ditch offer proposed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Negotiations have dragged for six months over how to manage Greece’s €312 billion ($350 billion) debt. They broke down late on Friday, when Tsipras surprised even his own government with a call for a referendum. The prime minister and his Syriza party leaders are encouraging voters to answer no (Όχι!) on Sunday and have taken to Twitter and other social and news media to describe the lenders’ stance toward Greece as “blackmail.” “The dignity of the Greeks” is at stake, Tsipras has repeated over the last several days.

Tens of thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators rallied in Athens on Monday night, carrying placards proclaiming "Όχι!" Today, a #YesToEuro rally is also drawing thousands of demonstrators in the Greek capital. 

It’s not so simple, says Lilly Papagianni, a publicist with a film distribution company. “It’s a yes-or-no question, but it’s not a yes-or-no situation,” she says. “If we vote, it’s completely uncertain what happens next. What I don’t know and can’t figure out is what the EU really wants to do with Greece. Do they want to deal with us, or do they want to kick us out?”

Papagianni, who didn't support Tsipras in the January elections, also plans to answer yes. “I didn’t trust him from the beginning because he was appealing to so much desperation, and he was proposing a dream that he couldn’t possibly make good on,” she says. One thing is making her choice easier, Papagianni says: “All I need to know is that no is the way the members of Golden Dawn [Greece’s nationalist, neo-Nazi party] will vote, so I’m comfortable with being on the opposite side of the spectrum from them.” 

Most Greeks to Vote Yes on Bailout Terms, Economides Says

As of early Tuesday, polling in Greece suggested that no is beating yes, but the situation is volatile, according to Maria Karaklioumi, an Athens-based pollster. "Hour by hour, we're seeing big shifts in people's responses, and 15 percent of voters say they're undecided," she says. Her polls show support for Tsipras falling. His approval rating is just under 50 percent today; two weeks ago, it was more than 60 percent.

"People don't trust Tsipras as much," Karaklioumi says. "He tells us that the vote doesn’t have to do with our presence in the euro zone or not, so they’re afraid of that and don't trust that." On the question of whom the Greeks blame for the nation's crisis, they're not letting anyone off—they see both the government and the lenders as having created the mess they find themselves in. The deep division among Greeks on how to vote is playing out on social media, with people posting news articles and photos of flyers—anything to explain or sway the vote. An advocacy group for children with cancer posted a flyer to Facebook asking what yes and no mean: "Will their medicines be available? Will the necessary radiation devices be available?"

A deputy to the prime minister, asked in a TV interview on Monday what Greece will do if it fails to make its Tuesday payment of €1.5 billion to the IMF, didn't answer the question. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis confirmed on Tuesday that Greece doesn't have the money to make the payment, and the lenders said an extension would not be granted. In an interview that aired late Tuesday in Greece, Tsipras said that he's not an "all-weather prime minister" and that he will resign if fewer than 55 percent of Greeks vote no.

The Greeks have suffered under austerity. Calls for pension cuts by the country's lenders haven't let up following a gradual series of reductions over the last few years. The government has raised property and utility taxes. Unemployment is at 25 percent, and it's nearly double that for younger Greeks. 

The latest challenge confronting Greeks is the capital controls imposed over the weekend. Banks are closed and will stay closed until at least Monday. For pensioners  who don't have bank cards and are due to collect their monthly payments on Tuesday, the Finance Ministry said about 1,000 branches will open on Wednesday for withdrawals capped at €120 (about $135) this week and—after cards are issued—up to €60 a day. 

Beltas, the retired construction worker, has a monthly pension of €700, cut by €150 two years ago. He hopes to receive the full payment on Tuesday. That, too, is a source of some confusion.

“I hear the banks will reopen to pay pensioners, and they’ll give us the full amount,” he says, adding that he doesn’t see how long this can go on.  

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