Tens of thousands of Greeks last week attended rival rallies in Athens ahead of a crucial referendum today.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was greeted with huge cheers when he told supporters to vote “No” to the terms of an international bailout.
But those attending a “Yes” rally nearby warned a “No” vote would see Greece ejected from the eurozone.
A Greek court earlier rejected a challenge to the legality of the referendum and it will go ahead.
Greece’s current bailout programme ran out last Tuesday. All week banks have been shut, with limits imposed on cash withdrawals
With so much at stake, the rhetoric is getting nasty – no-one can even be sure whether Greek banks will be able to reopen this week as the government has promised.
Another war of words flared late on Friday when Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis dismissed reports that Greece was preparing contingency plans for a possible “bail-in” of bank deposits as a “malicious rumour”. Media reports quoted sources as saying banks were considering a “haircut” of 30 percent on deposits over €8,000.
Opinion polls on last Friday suggested the country was evenly split over the vote – an Ipsos survey putting “Yes” supporters at 44% and “No” at 43%.
Opinion polls within 24 hours of the voting are banned, as are more campaign rallies.
Estimates of the crowds gathered in Athens on last Friday ranged from 25,000 to 50,000, with police and observers agreeing that the crowds at the “No” rally were bigger.
Rallies for both camps were held in 10 other Greek cities
In his speech Mr Tsipras reiterated the themes of almost daily addresses over the past week – the need for Greece to preserve its dignity and “say a proud ‘No’ to [European] ultimatums” to sign up to fresh austerity.
He said: “This is not a protest. It is a celebration to overcome fear and blackmail.”
Mr Tsipras urged Greeks to “decide to live in dignity in Europe”.
He denied a “Yes” vote would mean leaving Europe, saying: “We are not going to allow them to destroy Europe.”
But only a few hundred metres away, supporters of a “Yes” vote said they believed Mr Tsipras could not deliver on such a promise.
Nikos, a doctor said: “They cannot pretend any longer that it’s not about leaving the euro… and outside the euro lies only misery.
Unemployed economist Marina Peppa, 45, said: “It’s not going to be easy, but if ‘No’ prevails, we’ll have Armageddon, total poverty.”
Athens Mayor George Kaminis told supporters at the rally that people did not even understand the question on the ballot paper.
“We have been dragged into a pointless referendum that is dividing the people and hurting the country,” he said
Claims by Greek politicians that a “No” vote will strengthen their hand in bailout negotiations have been rebuffed by European leaders.
Both EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Jeroen Dijsselbloem – head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers – have insisted a “No” vote will weaken the Greeks’ position and that even a “Yes” vote will not mean a deal is easy to agree.
Mr Dijsselbloem said: “To get Greece back on track and the economy out of the slump, tough decisions will have to be taken and every politician that says that won’t be the case following a ‘No’ vote is deceiving his population.”
Several European officials have complained in strong terms about Greece’s abrupt decision to hold a referendum on the terms of a bailout offer they say is no longer on the table.
In a ruling on Friday, Greece’s top administrative court rejected an appeal lodged by two individuals who had argued that it was illegal to hold popular votes on fiscal matters.
The European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm – one of the “troika” of creditors along with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank – wants Athens to raise taxes and slash welfare spending to meet its debt obligations. — BBC.
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