e are the lucky ones.
“It really is nothing else, just luck.”
The woman in her forties, who identifies herself only as Marianthe, pauses to find the right English words when explaining that avoiding the effects of the Greek financial crisis of the past five years has been a major challenge.
“We still have our home; we can still go to the supermarket – but we are not the significant majority,” said the mother of two. “Many of our friends have lost their jobs and houses.”
The self-employed Athenian – who works in the business-to-business service industry – and her friend have brought their four daughters, aged between 16 and eight, to one of the biggest rallies in the Greek capital. On a warm, pleasant Friday night, an estimated 25 000 people fill the large Syntagma Square in central Athens next to the Greek Parliament building – the venue of most of the popular political action in the country.
Faint traces of tear gas still hang in the air from when police broke up scuffles by marchers earlier in the day.
“Nowadays there’s a different march every hour,” a campaigner on the square remarks wryly.
The Communist Party of Greece protested earlier that people should abstain from voting.
Marianthe and her friend’s eight-year-olds, two of a number of children who have accompanied their parents or grandparents to the gathering, wave white flags with the letters “Oxi” printed on them in red.
The word, pronounced “ochi”, means no – a twosyllable slogan many will translate into a vote today against the further austerity measures needed if the country hopes to repay a €1.5 billion (R20.5 billion) instalment on its loans.
The past five years have been hard for Greeks. In 2009, the European debt crisis resulted in Greek salaries plummeting, with taxes rising sharply – and many have had enough.
Another middle-aged woman at the no rally says: “There is a war against the people of Greece, and they started by closing the banks to depress us.”
A younger woman, Elena Christidi, who works as a waitress in her family-owned traditional restaurant, says lifestyles have changed.
“Fewer people come out, the nightlife in Athens is more quiet. Ten years ago, you could go out on a Monday night and find many crowded places. Now, not so much,” she says. “Also, I now think twice before buying something.”
She, too, has been “lucky”. Campaigners say between 15 and 20 people are losing their homes every week in Athens alone because they can no longer afford to pay mortgages and rents.
Today’s snap referendum, called barely a week ago and the country’s first in 41 years, has deeply divided the Greeks.
Friday night’s yes rally at the Panathenaic Stadium, less than a kilometre away from the no rally, attracted an estimated 20 000 people.
There was a tight security presence to prevent any potential clashes.
At that gathering, the European Union anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, was played and crowds, waving Greek and European Union flags, chanted “Greece, Europe, democracy” in stark contrast to the anti-Eurozone sentiment at the meeting a short way away.
The rather complicated referendum question is, however, a moot point now, because already the deal offered by Greece’s creditors – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – is off the table. It involved cash in return for reforms but expired on Tuesday. Any further negotiations have been suspended pending the referendum result.
Should the knife-edge poll tip in favour of the no voters, it could ultimately mean an exit from the Eurozone. Should it end in a yes vote, the six-monthold government of 40-year-old Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his radical left Syriza party may have to go. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has already said he would resign if the yes vote won.
Tsipras’ critics have said the referendum is unfair to the Greek people.
“The Greeks were already asked to decide on a government in January. It should take decisions on their behalf, but now the ball is thrown back at them,” said a German national working as a receptionist in Athens.
Tsipras made an emotional plea for a no vote on Friday night in a short speech between performances of hard rock and traditional music at the rally.
He told voters to “say a proud no to ultimatums and those who terrorise you”.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, he said, it was a celebration of democracy.
“On Sunday we are not just deciding whether we are staying in Europe, but we are deciding whether to live with dignity in Europe,” he said, adding that the eyes of the world were on Greece.
Sympathy rallies were held in Germany, Belgium, Britain and Poland.
It has been a difficult week for Greeks, who have seen their banks shutting and restrictions placed on how much money they can withdraw from ATMs, and has seen the introduction of free public transport.
Greek banks only have enough emergency liquidity assistance to last until tomorrow, and a worst-case scenario would be hyperinflation and a return to the drachma. Only a few Greeks have taken steps to provide for such a scenario. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty. As one no campaigner says: “Nobody knows what will happen on Monday.”
GREEK PRIDE Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime minister, at a rally against accepting European bailout conditions, on Syntagma Square in Athens on Friday. The country’s referendum on whether to stay or leave the EU is being held today
SAY NO People hold signs supporting an exit from Europe