ATHENS — After five months of bitter backroom talks and poisonous public smack-downs between officials in Greece and Europe, the fate of this nation-on-the-brink shifted into the hands of the Greek people on Sunday.
A substantial majority of voters in this nation of 11 million were expected to turn out for a referendum that asks them to answer either yes or no to a jargon-saturated question about Europe’s now-expired bailout offer.
Although the ballot doesn’t say so, Greece’s future in Europe, the survival of its government and the welfare of a population that has endured the most profound economic collapse of any developed nation since World War II could all be on the line.
Greeks are voting after a week that has been perhaps the most difficult for the country since its debt crisis began nearly six years ago. Banks stayed shut, with ATMs dispensing a meager maximum of 60 euros per customer. Food banks and hospitals reported shortages of basic supplies. At offices and shops, deals were put on hold as Greeks anxiously wondered whether the week’s turmoil was a mere prelude to something far worse.
On the final day before the vote, neither side was permitted to campaign. But officials in Greece and around Europe managed to work in some final insults as they sought to persuade a population that polls show is split almost exactly even between yes and no.
Greece’s outspoken finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, accused the country’s European creditors of “terrorism,” saying that they hope to scare Greek voters into defying their own government and voting yes.
“Why have they forced us to close the banks? To frighten people,” Varoufakis told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in an interview published Saturday. “And when it’s about spreading terror, that is known as terrorism.”
Varoufakis told El Mundo that he did not believe Greece’s creditors were serious about kicking the country out of the euro, as they have repeatedly threatened.
“It’s too much money, and I don’t believe Europe could allow it,” he said, estimating the toll for the continent at a trillion euros.
Varoufakis also vowed to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that regardless of which way Greece votes, the country will sign a bailout deal with Europe on Monday.
European officials have scoffed at such claims, with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble reiterating on Saturday that any new talks would be “very difficult.”
Schäuble insisted that the collateral damage to other European countries from a Greek meltdown would be limited. But in a potential softening of what had been a relentlessly hard-line stance, he told the German tabloid Bild that Greece may only “temporarily” leave the euro even if the country rejects Europe’s bailout offer.
Greece and Europe have been on a collision course since January, when Greek voters elected the radical leftist Syriza government on a platform of ending the strict austerity imposed here as a condition for massive bailouts.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called the surprise referendum a little over a week ago, hoping to gain leverage in his bargaining over the terms of the country’s cash-for-cuts deals.
But Syriza officials say they believe their paymasters are now trying to bring down the government through a yes vote.
Before negotiations broke off, they say, they were trapped by the incoherent demands of the creditors, with the International Monetary Fund demanding tough austerity but offering to slash Greece’s debts and European officials easing up on austerity but promising no debt forgiveness.
“So we had the worst of both worlds,” said Tasos Koronakis, the head of the 13-member secretariat that sets Syriza’s political policies. “That’s the reason why we decided to turn to the people and involve them in negotiations.”
But Greece’s banks may not last much longer without a deal. Greek banks have about $1.1 billion of reserves remaining, enough to last through the end of Monday or Tuesday morning, the head of the National Bank of Greece, Louka Katseli, told reporters on Friday.
The European Central Bank can choose to bolster the amount of emergency assistance it gives Greek lenders, or it can pull the plug, a decision that would immediately cause the banking sector to collapse. It could also help trigger Greece’s exit from the euro zone.
That prospect terrifies yes voters.
“No will bring about a catastrophe,” said John Seretis, 39, a pharmaceuticals distributor. “Yes will bring about many difficult things. But at least we’ll be in the euro.”
But Kyriakos Roussopoulos, a 41-year-old chef, said the government should be willing to blaze its own path if the country’s creditors won’t yield.
“We can make a new history,” he said. “We Greeks say that with an olive tree and a ship, we can build everything again from scratch. I may be poor for the next 10 years, but my kids will be better off.”